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One Crazy Summer: A 2016 Reality Check

Donald Trump details his policies, Hillary Clinton looks to reset 2:16

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

A reality check on what’s been a crazy summer in the 2016 campaign

It certainly has been one crazy summer in presidential politics. Trump! Hillary’s emails! Shock polls! But with more than five months until the first 2016 nominating contests, here’s a helpful reality check on the state of the presidential race:

1. Donald Trump continues to defy political gravity: His comments about Mexican “rapists” didn’t do him in. Neither did attacking John McCain’s military service, nor did his frontal assault on Fox News. Folks, his campaign isn’t going away -- and that will have consequences on the GOP nominating contests (who does Trump take votes away from?) and on the Republican Party as a whole (see his policy position on immigration).

2. Trump is still highly unlikely to win the GOP nomination: More than his controversial comments, what is likely to be Trump’s ultimate undoing are his past political views (his previous support for abortion rights, his enthusiastic backing of universal health care. “It's not clear to me that Donald Trump is a Republican, first of all, based upon his willingness to run a third party bid and the -- some of the positions that he's taken,” Carly Fiorina told ABC yesterday. And if you believe that endorsements from sitting governors, senators, and congressmen are the best predictor of who will win a party’s nomination, well, Trump doesn’t have a single endorsement like this.

3. Hillary Clinton still remains the overwhelming favorite on the Democratic side: Despite her summer of troubles (the email controversy, Bernie Sanders gaining ground on her, experiencing perhaps the worst week of her campaign), Clinton still has the clearest path to winning a party’s nomination that any non-incumbent has had in modern times. Now that could change if Joe Biden jumps into the race, and the lack of Dem enthusiasm about her candidacy is a real story to watch. Yet as the New York Times' Nate Cohn puts it, “Her policy views are smack-dab in the middle of the Democratic electorate, denying Mr. Sanders much room to challenge her on the left. She has won the so-called invisible primary, the behind-the-scenes competition for elite support that helps decide the nomination. She has more endorsements and cash than just about any candidate in American history.” What to watch: Does she still hover near 50% in the national polls? Or do those numbers continue to erode?

4. That email story isn’t going away, however: But until the FBI gives her a clean bill of health and until her October testimony before the House Benghazi committee, Clinton is going to have endure more drip-drip stories like this one: “Number of Hillary Clinton’s emails flagged for classified data grows to 60 as review continues,” the Washington Times says. Yet as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reminds us, we’ve previously known that reviewers were looking at hundreds of emails that were upgraded to classified status after the fact. Is the Democratic handwringing over this email story the equivalent of that Denver debate for Obama (so much huffing and puffing over something that really didn’t matter as much) or is it a potential campaign killer? It’s too early to tell.

5. It’s becoming too late for Biden to truly mount a successful run: Every day that Biden waits to create a fundraising apparatus (to finance a sitting vice presidential -- with his security detail in tow -- campaigning across the country) makes it harder for him to compete against Bernie Sanders, let alone Hillary Clinton. A Biden confidante told one of us that the vice president’s chances of jumping into the race are now as high as 60%-40%. But if he gets in, Biden faces this reality: His chances of finishing third are greater than finishing first.

6. The GOP presidential race is a true jump ball: If you believe that Trump won’t ultimately win the GOP nomination, the question becomes: Then who does? The answer: We have absolutely no idea. Just look at that new national Fox poll: Trump 25%, Ben Carson 12%, Ted Cruz 10%, Jeb Bush 9%, Mike Huckabee 6%, Scott Walker 6%, Fiorina 5%, John Kasich 4%, Marco Rubio 4%, Rand Paul 3%, and Chris Christie 3%. Wow. If Hillary Clinton is having a rough summer, what does that mean for the three men who are perceived as the GOP frontrunners -- Bush, Walker, and Rubio?

7. The general election -- right now -- is another jump ball: With the economy doing OK and with President Obama’s job at or around the mid-40s, the general election looks like it will be a close contest. Democrats have demographics on their side; the GOP has history on theirs (that is, a party has held onto the White House for more than two terms just once since Truman). Points #6 and #7 are the reasons why the 2016 contest will be a fantastic race to cover -- well beyond this summer’s crazy developments.

Why Trump’s immigration position is a big deal

Donald Trump’s policy position on immigration -- all undocumented immigrants must leave the country, no birthright citizenship, Mexico must pay for a border wall (and it will be penalized if it doesn’t do so) -- is a big deal, because it will force the rest of the GOP field to react. Do they, too, believe that all undocumented immigrants must be deported, as Trump said on “Meet the Press” yesterday? Do they, too, believe that children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S. shouldn’t become citizens? Do they, too, believe that the U.S. should increase 1) fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexicans and 2) other fees and tariffs if Mexico doesn’t build its wall? If anything, Trump provided very CLEAR answers on the thorny subject of immigration. Can his opponents respond as clearly?

More Trump: Why he says he won’t rip up the Iran deal on Day 1

The other interesting news that Trump made on “Meet the Press” was arguing why he wouldn’t/couldn’t rip up the Iran deal on Day 1 of his presidency. “It's very hard to say, ‘We're ripping up.’ And the problem is by the time I got in there, they will have already received the $150 billion,” he said. “Do you know if the deal gets rejected they still get the money? Which is something I found out a week ago. I couldn't believe it. If the deal gets rejected, they still get all of this money.” Trump’s comments here came on the same day that the New York Times published a story about how vague the GOP candidates have been about using U.S. power abroad.

Reminder: Sitting vice presidents don’t get to skip some early states

Also over the weekend, Politico wrote that Biden, if he gets into the 2016 race, plans to focus on South Carolina, plus get big Super PAC checks from a handful of wealthy Democratic donors. But folks, that’s more of a campaign strategy for the likes of Rick Santorum and Rick Perry -- rather than a sitting vice president. Bottom line: Sitting vice presidents don’t get to skip early nominating states.

Sanders: I didn’t apologize for being late to reach out to “Black Lives Matter” activists -- a staffer did

This wasn’t an insignificant exchange on “Meet the Press”:

TODD: Buzzfeed has an article out this morning. Headline is this: "Sanders Campaign Reaches Out to Black Lives Matter Activists." Quote, "I apologize it took our campaign so long." Tell me more about it.

SANDERS: Well, that was sent out by a staffer, not by me. Look, we are reaching out to all kinds of groups, absolutely…

TODD: I understand that but, you said a staffer put it out, but you felt an apology was necessary?

SANDERS: No, I don't. I think we're going to be working with all groups. This was sent out without my knowledge.

Wow. It’s not every day when a presidential candidate says his staff did something he didn’t authorize. If this happened to the Hillary/Jeb campaign, it would be a full-fledged crisis.

On the trail

Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham all give soapbox speeches at the Iowa State Fair… Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum also stump in the Hawkeye State… Jeb Bush is in South Carolina, where he holds a military/veterans town hall… John Kasich also appears in South Carolina, filing his paperwork to be on the ballot in the state… And Rand Paul remains in Haiti, where he is performing humanitarian eye surgeries.

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