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The 2016 Race Has Returned to Where It Was Six Weeks Ago

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.

Mike Pence: Donald Trump won VP debate and is a role model for children 7:09

The 2016 race returns to where it was six weeks ago

Back in August, here were the political stories we were covering: Hillary Clinton had a convincing lead in the polls and on the battleground map; Democrats held the upper hand in the fight for Senate control; Republicans were looking for ways to separate themselves from Donald Trump; and the Trump campaign was in disarray. Well, despite how Trump was able to close the gap in September, the 2016 race is starting to look like it did back in August. Just look at today’s New York Times report on nervous downballot Republicans. “For his party, Mr. Trump’s reversal in fortune comes at the worst possible moment: Having muted their criticism of Mr. Trump in hopes that he could at least run competitively through Election Day, Republicans must decide in the next few days, rather than weeks, whether to seek distance from his wobbly campaign. Should Mr. Trump falter badly in his second debate with Hillary Clinton on Sunday in St. Louis, Republican congressional candidates may take it as a cue to flee openly from their nominee.”

Team Trump is taking Sunday’s debate seriously

The question we have is if this is the natural state of the race (post-convention, post-first debate), or if the contest is bound to tighten again. Our guess here is that the answer is hinging on Sunday’s next debate. As for the debate, NBC’s Peter Alexander and Hallie Jackson report that Team Trump is taking it seriously. But is the principal taking as seriously, too? “[Tonight] Trump will participate in a town hall in New Hampshire, a late add to the schedule… It’s an opportunity for Trump to develop some muscle memory and get used to the idea of being in this kind of setting ahead of Sunday night’s face-off. (His last town hall was months ago, prior to him becoming officially becoming the GOP nominee at the convention in Cleveland.) As one person put it, ‘There's no substitute for getting ready for a town hall like doing a town hall.’” More from Alexander and Jackson: “We're told Chris Christie is taking on an expanded role in the debate prep. That makes sense, given his unique strengths in the town hall format; Christie racked up dozens of them when he decamped to New Hampshire during his primary run. RNC chair Reince Priebus is also helping to honcho these prep sessions, which are ‘significantly smaller’ than they used to be. Who’s missing? Gen. Mike Flynn, for one, along with Gen. Keith Kellogg, who have been sidelined to try and keep Trump focused.”

Hurricane Matthew to overshadow (and possibly impact) the 2016 race

But the biggest news story over the next 48 hours will be Hurricane Matthew, which not only will overshadow the 2016 race but which also will impact at least two battleground states. “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are at risk of being elbowed out of the news cycle by a powerful hurricane churning toward the Southeast coast and threatening to barrel into two of their most important battlegrounds: Florida and North Carolina,” Politico writes. “But the Clinton camp is refusing to be completely shut out of the conversation: Her team is buying airtime on the Weather Channel in a slew of major Florida media markets.”

Donald Trump takes credit for Mike Pence's performance in VP debate 2:37

The millennial vote isn’t monolithic

That’s the conclusion from a poll of millennial voters (ages 18-30, conducted Sept. 1-14) via GenForward, a survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago with the Associated Press-NORC Center. According to this poll, Clinton leads Trump 74%-2% among young likely African-American voters; 71%-6% among young likely Asian Americans voters; 64%-9% among young likely Latino voters; but just 41%-31% among young likely white voters. Bottom line: The youth vote isn’t monolithic. Young minorities are much more likely to back Clinton than young whites. In addition, Gary Johnson gets support from 15% of white young voters, compared to 8% for young Latinos and 4% for young African Americans. So young whites are more likely to back Johnson/Stein than young minority voters.

Once again, Johnson puts his foot in his mouth on foreign affairs

Speaking of Gary Johnson… In an interview with the New York Times, he equated the Syrian government’s targeting of non-combatants in that country’s civil war with the accidental bombing by U.S.-backed forces. “Attacking Hillary Clinton over what he criticized as her overly interventionist instincts, Mr. Johnson pointed to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as civilian deaths caused by the American-backed coalition, and said Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state, bore at least partial responsibility. But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did. ‘Well no, of course not — we’re so much better than all that,’ Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. ‘We’re so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital.’” Johnson also didn’t seem to know the name of North Korea’s leader. “Asked if he knew the name of North Korea’s leader, Mr. Johnson replied, ‘I do.’ ‘You want me to name’ the person, he said, then paused, before adding dryly, ‘Really.’ But he declined to supply the name.” Running mate Bill Weld will be an important voice in the next couple of days. Is he still standing behind Johnson?

Top 10 advertising markets in the 2016 presidential race

In our regular look at the top advertising markets in the presidential contest, Florida continues to lead the way, representing the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 9 overall markets. And Miami isn’t one of them.

  1. Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, FL: $20,935,864
  2. Tampa-St Petersburg-Sarasota, FL: $17,243,115
  3. Cleveland-Akron, OH: $13,353,450
  4. Las Vegas, NV: $11,518,149
  5. Charlotte, NC: $10,362,572
  6. Columbus, OH: $9,233,781
  7. Philadelphia, PA: $9,051,325
  8. Satellite (things like DirectTV and Dish): $7,978,520
  9. West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, FL: $7,920,116
  10. Boston, MA (New Hampshire): $7,325,756

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a town hall in Sandown, NH at 7:00 pm ET… Tim Kaine stumps in Pittsburgh, PA at 2:30 pm ET and then Las Vegas, NV at 9:30 pm ET… Mike Pence has two events in Pennsylvania… Bernie Sanders holds three events campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Michigan… And Chelsea Clinton promotes the early vote in Minnesota.

Countdown to second presidential debate: 3 days

Countdown to third presidential debate: 13 days

Countdown to Election Day: 33 days