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Conventional Wisdom: Will Bill Clinton Help Or Hurt His Wife’s Campaign?

This is our weekly politics newsletter, Conventional Wisdom. In this edition, we’re writing about Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy. (Sign up here.)


Ever watch a football game and wonder what the heck your team is doing? Buffalo Bills fans like me do so often, and many Republicans have had the same feeling in the pit of their stomach watching Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. But this past week it was the Democrats’ turn to shake their heads, thanks to Bill Clinton.

Clinton decided to hold what seemed to be an impromptu meeting last Monday with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at an airport in Phoenix. Lynch’s Justice Department, of course, is investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was at the State Department. Regardless of what Bill Clinton and Lynch discussed (they claim to have spoken only about grandchildren and golf), a gifted politician like Clinton should have known that he was creating an opportunity for his opponents to say the Justice Department investigation was being tainted. Indeed, Clinton and Lynch, who also seemed unaware at first of the implications of the meeting, have stated that they regret their conversation, and Lynch said on Friday that she would leave it to the FBI to decide whether charges in the case are warranted.

Up to that point, Bill Clinton had mostly been an asset to his wife’s campaign. He made a bunch of campaign stops during the primary season without making the same mistakes he did eight years ago. (His popularity dropped tremendously during the 2008 campaign thanks to several stumbles, including dismissing Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary by saying it was a state Jesse Jackson won twice.) The question for this election cycle is whether Bill Clinton can return to being a smart campaigner, like he was for Obama four years ago, or whether more embarrassing moments like the one in Phoenix are ahead.

Hillary Clinton, though, has no hesitation in campaigning with another president. She’s hitting the trail with President Obama on Tuesday for the first time. Obama’s job approval rating has risen to 50 percent, and he remains very popular with Bernie Sanders’s supporters, so he might be able to help Clinton rally holdouts from the Sanders camp without alienating the middle of the electorate.

And their choice of a city in which to campaign together is even more interesting. Clinton and Obama are holding their rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. Originally, the event was scheduled for Green Bay, Wisconsin, before the Orlando terrorist attack last month delayed it. The switch in venues makes a lot of sense: Polls are showing Clinton’s chances climbing in North Carolina, while Wisconsin looks more and more like a fairly safe state for Clinton in the fall.

She has an 85.6 percent chance of winning Wisconsin, according to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast, which is up from 78.8 percent in early June. The forecast shows her up 9.6 percentage points over Trump, and Clinton has never trailed Trump in a single Wisconsin survey. Add three other factors — the last Republican to win Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984, Trump has struggled with conservatives in the state and Clinton isn’t spending television ad money in Wisconsin — and you begin to see why the campaign moved the event to North Carolina, where she has a more tentative lead.

In the Tar Heel State, according to our polls-only forecast, Clinton has a 59 percent chance of winning. That’s up from 41 percent in early June, when Clinton and Obama first announced that they were going to hold an event together, so the state looks more winnable. Taking into account house effects, Clinton led Trump in every single North Carolina poll released in June. That lead, however, is less than her lead nationally. The FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast has her up just 1.9 percentage points in North Carolina compared to 6.5 percentage points nationally.

If Clinton were to win North Carolina, she could win the presidency without winning states that Democrats normally need to win. Clinton could lose Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia and still win if she took the other states Gore won in 2000 plus Florida (where she leads) and North Carolina. Clinton could also lose Florida, Iowa or Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania and still win the presidency if she took Colorado, Iowa or Nevada and Virginia (which were all carried by Obama twice). In other words, Trump could win some Rust Belt states and Northeastern states and lose the election, if Clinton is able to carry North Carolina.

We’ll have the next five months to watch Clinton’s strategy in the states, and to see which president she calls on the most for help.

Read more:

Donald Trump Has A 20 Percent Chance Of Becoming President by Nate Silver — An explanation of our general election forecast, and why Clinton’s dominance in the race doesn’t mean she’s a shoo-in.

What Donald Trump Loves About The Brexit by Farai Chideya — The parallels between anti-EU voters and nativist voters in the U.S., and why Trump is playing them up.

Global Terrorism Declined Last Year — But Not In The West by Andrew Flowers — The latest numbers show that despite the rise of terror incidents in the West, the overall number has declined around the world.

CORRECTION (July 5, 10:20 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the department that is investigating Clinton’s email server. It is the Justice Department, not the State Department.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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