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Howard Fineman   |   July 21, 2016    5:21 PM ET

CLEVELAND – The chaos, ineptitude and controversy in and around the Republican convention here have led top Democratic strategists to conclude that they can now attack Donald Trump on a basic level: his ability to handle the job of president.

“It’s a trust issue now,” said Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who is a clear party player and the head of its Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He’s not up to the job. We can’t trust him to actually handle the work.”

To be sure, Trump’s incendiary, outrageous comments on race, immigration and Muslims are ammo for the Democrats. On social issues, the GOP platform is the hardest to the right on record, as is Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a leading foe of abortion and gay rights.

But Democrats have now decided that they can attack him on what the Trump camp sees as his strength: his ability to “get things done.”

It’s a strategy that has risks, given the GOP’s determination to attack Clinton as a secretary of state who mismanaged the Benghazi attack and who was deemed “careless” at best by the FBI for he mishandling of classified data in her emails.

“He actually BUILDS things,” Trump adviser Roger Stone told me of the candidate. “No one else in politics does that.” 

But if you consider the chain of events leading up Cleveland and up to this minute, it is hard to conclude that Trump has demonstrated the kind of close command required to be the party standard-bearer, let alone president and commander-in-chief.

Trump likes to operate with a loose-knit team of aides in which there is no real chain of command or organizational structure. It gives him the freedom to operate as he wants, but also deniability if one of his scrambling advisers makes a mistake.

He also hates to be told what to do or say – an admirable quality in many ways, but one that means he refuses to delegate and attempts both to micromanage and remain aloof at the same time. Add to that Trump’s hatred of long hours and the intense daily details of politics (not to mention government), and you end up with man who may not be suited to be the CEO of the country.

As if to answer these concerns in advance, Trump has said – and told others – that he wants to be the “chairman of the board” to a vice president who will operate as the chief operating officer.

“We’ve been through that before,” said Franken. “That was the problem with George W. Bush. He didn’t know the details, and ended up making decisions on the fly that were huge mistakes.”

The floating structure around Trump, with Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort ostensibly at the center, did accomplish its one official mission at the convention: securing the nomination.

But there were messes all around.

Trump was backed into picking Pence before he wanted to, and after word leaked. As a result, neither of the other two contenders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were told of the decision in advance.

Despite Manafort’s reputation for skill at managing the convention floor, much of the first two days were consumed with battles in which the Trump campaign was caught flat-footed by social media and live cable coverage that gave prominence to Trump foes.

The Trump campaign’s decision to allow Sen. Ted Cruz to speak was widely panned by even supportive convention delegates – and even some Cruz fans. “I don’t know why he spoke or why they let him speak without Ted agreeing to endorse Trump,” said Fran Wendelboe, a delegate from New Hampshire who was a Cruz supporter in the primaries.

The story of Melania Trump’s partially plagiarized speech dominated the news in Cleveland for nearly three days, with aides and Trump himself contradicting each other’s stories hour by hour.

The final picture was one of shocking sloppiness: A longtime Trump business aide had scribbled notes she didn’t know Melania had lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.

Trump flew home to his skyscraper penthouse in Manhattan after the Melania debacle, reinforcing the image of a leader comfortable only tweeting on his smart phone from his own office – or bed.

Finally, just hours before his own speech, Trump gave an interview to The New York Times that blew up in his face – and underscored the point that the Democrats want to make about him. He declared that the U.S. would honor NATO treaty commitments only if the countries that are signatories to it have made all of their payments to the organization’s treasury.

Manafort insisted that Trump had been misquoted – until the Times released the full transcript that, embarrassingly but inevitably, proved him wrong. Trump had said it, and evidently his “chairman” had no idea.

And so it went.

A PAC allied with the Democrats had already put out a video playing on the “3 a.m. phone call” ad Hillary Clinton once used. The strategy didn’t appear to work against Barack Obama in 2008, but the Dems are going to give it another try.

This time, they may have a point.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   July 21, 2016    2:07 PM ET

CLEVELAND ― Hillary Clinton’s camp is focusing on Tom Vilsack as a potential running mate, but not because he is the former governor of Iowa or the longest-serving secretary of agriculture in half a century.

It’s because Vilsack, in his own mind, remains a son of the place of his birth and upbringing ― Pittsburgh. He maintains close ties there, and is a typically impassioned member of the Pittsburgh diaspora of emigrants created by the collapse of the local steel-based economy in the 1970s.

An orphan who was left almost literally on the doorstep of the Sister of Charity’s Roselia Foundling Home in 1950, Vilsack was educated in local schools and steeped in Pittsburgh culture before leaving the city for good after graduating from Hamilton College.

A Roman Catholic whose father was of Eastern European stock ― the staple of working-class white Pittsburgh ― Vilsack grew up an ardent fan of the Pirates and the Steelers and remains focused on them with the kind of emotion and obsessive detail that only the locals fully understand and appreciate.

As a fellow Pittsburgher, I know all this: Vilsack and I talk Steelers all the time.

Why does any of this matter?

Because Republican nominee Donald Trump almost certainly can’t beat Clinton in November without winning Iowa and Pennsylvania.

As the local newspapers in and around Pittsburgh have been noting with pride, Vilsack has “Pittsburgh roots,” a crucial calling card in a city and region where demographic change has been slow and most residents tend to be from families with long local ties.

Trump is targeting the white working class in the industrial arch that stretches from Michigan in the west to the old coal fields and docks of the Philadelphia and Scranton areas in the east.

“Those areas are going to be very strong for us,” Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told me here the other day, and he is probably right.

Indeed, old semi-rural industrial areas around Cleveland, I found, are thick with pro-Trump voters, and they are heavily motivated.

An orphan, an Eastern European, a Catholic and a Steelers fan, Vilsack can talk the cultural language of those voters in the old mill towns of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern and Southeastern Ohio.

The local papers in the region are following the Clinton selection process closely.

Iowa is a crucial swing state as well, and the main news about Vilsack, if he is chosen, will come from downtown Des Moines.

But if he is actually chosen, it will be in good measure because he will be a screaming headline in print and online at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Howard Fineman   |   July 20, 2016    4:04 PM ET

CLEVELAND ― Quick question: Which candidate for president is using the methods of Saul Alinsky, the ‘60s-era activist and author whom Republicans love to hate and who ― as Dr. Ben Carson noted Tuesday night ― once described Lucifer, not disapprovingly, as “the very first radical”?

Donald Trump, of course.

Yes, Hillary Clinton studied, knew and admired Alinsky when she was a student at Wellesley in the late 1960s. For earnest, well-meaning, young leftish elite students, it was the fashionable thing to do.

In fact, Clinton even wrote her thesis about him.

Republicans usually don’t mention that she rejected Alinsky’s view, which was that the poor could never be helped by working within the political system ― only by attacking it from the outside.

Now, nearly a half a century later, it is Donald Trump who is running on Alinsky-like contempt for the system, doing everything he can to destroy and discredit it on his march to power in the name of rescuing the white middle class.

And where Alinsky used “radical” tactics to battle poverty and injustice, Trump is using them to steer his own ego-driven Trump Train of accusatory authoritarianism.

Ironically, it was Alinsky himself, shortly before he died in 1972, who foresaw the rise of a Donald Trump, and who planned to organize among the very voters Trump now targets.

The “silent majority” cultivated by President Richard Nixon, Alinsky told Playboy magazine, was “ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.”

Trump is that guy, and he is plucking them with Alinsky’s own methods.

“Rub raw the sores of discontent,” counseled Alinsky, whose lifelong work began with trying to organize poor black people in the fetid neighborhoods of Chicago that Upton Sinclair had depicted in The Jungle.

Updating the Alinsky playbook for the 24-hour news cycle and the social media age, Trump scours Americans’ sores with fear ― fear of protesters, fear of cop-killers, fear of Mexicans, fear of Muslims ― and offers a message of closed borders, military and diplomatic isolationism and Nixonian “law and order.”

At the same time, and in a manner that Alinsky would surely recognize, Trump taunts, cheapens, undermines and ultimately discredits the political mores, traditions and institutions with the power to judge and exclude him.

The louder the outrage of any “establishment” figure or institution ― be it the “mainstream media,” historians, college presidents, the Republican Party, former GOP presidents or members of Congress ― the sweeter the music to the ears of an Alinskyish provocateur like Trump.

“The job of the organizer,” Alinsky wrote in his seminal 1971 book Rules for Radicals, “is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’”

Agitators who go this route will find that “the hysterical instant reaction of the establishment [will] not only validate [the organizer’s] credentials of competency,” Alinsky wrote, “but also ensure automatic popular invitation.”

Trump relishes the attacks; they make him seem strong.

The Republican National Convention is turning out to be a weeklong troll of political tradition on Trump’s part. And Republican delegates ― those who actually like him and those radiating sullenness from their seats ― are all bit players in his parade of disrespect for the institutions he is conquering.


The tradition is for the candidate not to appear on stage until the final night of the convention? Trump was there on the first night, smoke machine and all.

The winner is supposed to let the losers blow off steam by allowing a symbolic protest roll call vote? Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s answer to that was the procedural equivalent of piano wire. He choked off every avenue of dissent on the floor.

A typical speaking lineup includes respected figures from politics and the arts? How’s an underwear model for you?

The nominee’s wife gives a speech partially cribbed from the current first lady ― of the other party, no less. Shocked? Get over it. No one cares, the actual words don’t matter and all publicity is good publicity.

You’re supposed to do everything you can to have the governor of the host state on your side? Reports are mixed on this point, with one source telling The Huffington Post the Trump camp is wooing Kasich, and another insisting later that “we are not trying to bring him in” and that Kasich is “bitter” and untrustworthy. But the point is that Trump himself, to all appearances, doesn’t really care. It’s not hard to imagine that he loves the idea of playing take-it-or-leave-it with someone he’s expected to publicly make nice with (someone who’s a former presidential rival, at that).

Conventions are meant to be the “pivot point,” when the campaign “reaches out” from a solid and secured party base to “introduce” the candidate to undecided voters and even voters from the other party. Not so with Trump. His convention is about throwing red meat to his followers ― making them want to walk through walls for him ― and calling for Hillary Clinton to be put in jail.

And so what if one of his supporters suggests that Clinton be made to face a firing squad for her handling of the Benghazi attack ― which, by the way, even GOP investigators could not find serious fault with?

Anyone who objects, of course, is just caving to the tyranny of “political correctness.”

Trump hasn’t suggested that you get the firing squad for that. But it is only July.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.


Howard Fineman   |   May 25, 2016    5:32 PM ET

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Paul Manafort looks the part of a chairman: 67, well-coiffed, bespoke-suited and appropriately Rolexed. In the world of Donald Trump, that's his title: campaign chairman and chief strategist.

And as chairmen do, Manafort assured us that his enterprise will be crowned with success: Trump will beat Hillary Clinton soundly in November.

“He’s gonna win,” Manafort said over breakfast at a local diner called The Royal in Old Town Alexandria. “He's gonna win unless we -- meaning people like me -- screw it up. This is not a hard race.”

Why? In Manafort’s summary: Trump will remain Trump.

He may moderate a few views -- think Muslims -- but he won't and doesn't need to back down on anything. He probably won't pick a woman or a member of a minority group as a running mate because that would be “pandering.” He won’t win George W. Bush's levels of Latino support, but he will pick up enough Hispanic votes in key swing states. He won’t get the Bush family's support and doesn’t want it. Trump just has to be presidential enough in the first debate (no body parts mentioned), pick an experienced running mate, and run Clinton into the ground as a corrupt version of Barack Obama.

He'll win with white men and women, plus just enough of everyone else. Simple.

You don’t change Donald Trump. You don’t ‘manage’ him.
Paul Manafort

Handlers usually undersell, but not Manafort and not now. Extra infusions of optimism are helpful to Trump at a time when some Republican leaders remain dubious, mega funders are scared by Trumpismo, and The Donald has the highest negatives of any party nominee in memory.

Manafort’s sunny vision may be a little skewed. Having made millions as an image crafter for foreign tyrants, he can’t help but see Trump as an easy lift by comparison. And his analysis deserves an extra measure of caution because no one ultimately speaks for Trump -- a point Manafort was quick to stress.

“You don’t change Donald Trump,” he said. “You don’t ‘manage’ him.”

TrumpWorld is, in fact, a seething mosh pit of ambitious egos vying to influence Trump, who keeps them all at bay, milking them for advice, until he decides everything on his own -- often on a whim or in an odd-hour tweet.

But to the extent that there is a theory of and a plan for victory, it’s up to Manafort to devise them. He laid out his thinking for The Huffington Post between bites of egg-white omelet.

A Ban On Muslims: Democrats and many Republicans have hammered Trump on his call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. until some unspecified future time when he deems it safe to do so.

“He’s already started moderating on that," Manafort said. "He operates by starting the conversation at the outer edges and then brings it back towards the middle. Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more."

"He’ll still end up outside of the norm, but in line with what the American people are thinking."

Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more. Manafort on Trump's Muslim strategy

That Wall: “He is going to build a wall. That is a core thing with him," Manafort said. "He will push it strongly, and he will push for the immigration changes just as strongly."

His Tax Returns: “I will be surprised if he puts them out. I wouldn’t necessarily advise him to. It’s not really an issue for the people we are appealing to. His tax returns are incredibly complicated. I wouldn’t understand them, so how are the American people going to? The financial disclosure he put out gives the salient points," Manafort said.

"The only people who want the tax returns are the people who want to defeat him."

The only people who want the tax returns are the people who want to defeat him. Manafort on why Trump doesn't need to release his returns

The GOP: It was never as divided, Manafort said, as it might have looked on the night Trump locked up the nomination with a primary victory in Indiana.

“That was all B.S.,” he said. “It was overblown. His negatives were going to drop when Republicans came home, and they are. The level of GOP support for Trump now is between 82 and 87 percent, and it is going to get to 90, 93."

“I’ve made three trips to the Hill and most of the people up there are getting with us, if they weren’t already,” he said. “There are some Senate candidates who aren’t sure Trump is in their interest yet, but they’ll come along.”

“The ‘never Trump’ movement was never going anywhere.” He’s right.

Latino Voters: The conventional view, espoused by the Bush family and its retainer Karl Rove, is that a GOP presidential candidate needs 40 percent of the nationwide Hispanic vote to win. Trump is at roughly 20 percent.

“The national polls are distorted,” Manafort said. “To get a national sample they rely too much on Hispanics from New York and California, which is where large populations are, but also where most of the radical Hispanics are."

“But if you look at Hispanics in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Florida, you see a different picture. We’re going to target Hispanic voters in those and other swing states."

“The message is going to be jobs, national security, terrorism, family values and education,” he said. “In that order."

“Their concerns are the same as the white working families."

So his candidate doesn't need 40 percent of Latino voters nationwide. “If we get into the high 20s in those states with Hispanics, we will win them, and in Florida we can do even better if we do what we need to do in the Cuban community.”

The Women: “Our numbers even now are not that far out of whack,” Manafort said. “We’re down 12 among women, but up 20 among men."

“Hillary is the one who’s got a gender gap. And while we are behind among women over all, we’re ahead among white women even now. We’ll get some black and Hispanic women as we go along.”

How He'll Campaign: “We’ll continue the rallies. That is Trump’s brand. We’ll do the broad themes at the big rallies. No one wants to change that."

But, Manafort added, the campaign will assemble a state-of-the-art social media and on-the-ground operation.

“He doesn’t want to spend the money on a big national campaign structure. He hears a figure like $500 million and says, ‘These are all people who are going to get rich.’ But I have reassured him that it will be a very lean operation.”

'Filling The Chair': “There are two main challenges. One is to make the American people look at him and say, ‘He can fill the chair.’"

“Does he know enough? Yes, because he knows he has more to learn. And he is constantly doing that.”

Trump doesn't read briefing papers, but he is a magnet for information, Manafort said. "He reads the newspapers, and he talks on the phone and to office visitors in a never-ending stream. You’re sitting there in his office and you realize that he is constantly picking up stuff as he goes."

“We have all this survey research, but he does his own soundings all the time, all day every day. And he’s more accurate," Manafort said.

The first presidential debate will be key. Needless to say, Trump won't hesitate to attack Clinton in that and other debates. Attack is and has always been his only mode.

“The idea of going at her doesn’t have to change,” said Manafort. “But it will matter how he says it.”

He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. Manafort on Trump's veep pick

The vice presidential pick will also be part of the process of proving he's ready for the White House, Manafort said.

“He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He seems himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO."

“There is a long list of who that person could be," Manafort added, "and every one of them has major problems.”

The campaign probably won't choose a woman or a member of a minority group, he said. “In fact, that would be viewed as pandering, I think.”

Attacking Hillary: The second challenge is to showcase Clinton's flaws in a way that doesn't drive away the independents. 

There is little reason to worry that Trump's abrasive attacks will backfire, Manafort insisted. "He's not going to fundamentally change, though you have to say it right," he said.

The main message about Clinton will be that as president, she would be "Obama Three" but with worse ethics. The prospect of another term for the current administration will be enough to convince voters, the president's relatively strong recent job approval numbers notwithstanding. 

No Bushes: “I think we’ll get other people coming aboard eventually, but probably not the Bushes -- and Trump can leave them alone,” said Manafort. "And we’re going to be above 90 percent Republican support without them."

“People don’t want dynasties. They want change.”

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   May 16, 2016   12:01 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If the Kentucky Democratic primary were the Derby, Hillary Clinton would be racing around the track a dozen times right now, passing the finish line again and again. Anything to secure a victory in the race.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, of course, is running hard in Kentucky, but that is to be expected. His brand is stubborn relentlessness, and he wants to pile up delegates to improve his policy and cult clout at the Democratic convention in July in Philadelphia.

Clinton is a different story. Statistically and practically, she is the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee. And yet there is a nagging worry even among her own party insiders that she is going to be a tough sell in November, the favorable Electoral College math notwithstanding.

A string of recent losses to Sanders -- and his continued strong showing, stronger than Clinton’s, in test match-ups against Republican Donald Trump -- have heightened that concern.

So although Clinton surely wishes she didn't have to spend any more time or money on the nomination race, she is doing just that in Kentucky.

Her campaign has rolled out new TV ads and scheduled eight stops in two days leading up to the primary, including one Sunday at a black church here in Louisville with popular local Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

“She was terrific,” said Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in Congress from a state that has gone from blue to tea-party red under the guidance of Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

So why the big Kentucky push?

For one, Clinton can’t afford a repeat of what happened in another coal state, West Virginia, where her attempts to explain the inevitable decline of the fuel came off (unfairly) as a condescending wish to have that very thing happen.

Kentucky’s economy is much more diversified, but she can’t take chances. And she will need at least some coal-field votes to win states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania in the fall.

Second, the primary is closed, meaning that only people registered as Democrats can vote. Clinton generally has done better when independents and the youngest voters -- keys to Sanders’ support -- either can’t vote or haven’t registered.

Third, Kentucky has been Clinton territory in the past, and the brand, though fading, remains popular in the state.

Some of the earliest political and financial supporters of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton came from Lexington, and his good-ol’-boy, country-cousin style played perfectly here.

When Bill was campaigning in the state a few years ago on behalf of a local candidate, former Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) declared that when Clinton was president, America’s “streets were paved with gold.” The crowd laughed, but not derisively.

Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush in Kentucky in 1992 and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996. He was the last Democrat to carry the state -- and may be the last for a while.

That heritage is no doubt why Hillary declared this weekend as she campaigned that she was considering putting her husband “in charge” of reviving the economy.

It’s a sweeping assertion she may regret later, but you do what you’ve got to do for the race you're in -- and raising her husband’s profile is a smart thing to do here. He, too, has been all over the state in recent days and weeks.

The fourth reason why Hillary is betting big on Kentucky is demographics. To be sure, it is a mostly white state (not her best playing field), but Louisville and Lexington have major pockets of reliably Democratic African-American voters.

And Louisville is the rare Southern city that's actually a major labor union center. Kentucky is the only Southern state that doesn't operate under right-to-work laws (McConnell has been beating his head against that one for decades), and the AFL-CIO is growing even more powerful in Louisville with the addition of thousands of Teamster workers at UPS (joining other union workers at General Electric, Ford and chemical plants here).

The union leadership is solidly pro-Clinton, and there have been noticeable labor contingents at her rallies here.

The combination of black and union voters -- plus the popularity of Yarmuth and Fischer -- should give Hillary what she needs to beat Bernie with a strong metro push.

But there are signs that Sanders is still a tough out.

At a party last week, former Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of Lexington (grandson of the famous Gov. Albert “Happy” Chandler) and his wife showed up with their grown children in tow.

One of them was wearing a “Feel the Bern” T-shirt. And he got a lot of compliments for it.  

Howard Fineman   |   May 3, 2016    6:54 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, lives along so many fault lines of American politics that he is especially sensitive to Trump tremors, which he fears could become an earthquake by November.

“I’m concerned,” he said. “Beating Donald Trump won’t be as easy as it might look.”

Casey is a pro-life Roman Catholic with a pro-gun history until recently, in a state that Democratic consultant James Carville once described as “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between.” He is also an old-school Democrat and a new-school one: He's pro-union and wary of global trade; he defends Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

The mix works: Casey won re-election in 2012 -- the first Democratic senator in Pennsylvania to do so in half a century -- and ran well ahead of President Barack Obama that year. So he knows his people.

In Casey’s view, presumptive (if weakened) Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will do well in Philadelphia and some of its suburban counties, and probably on his own home turf of Scranton in the state's hardscrabble northeast.

“The problem will be out west,” he said, where what used to be called Reagan Democrats live in large numbers in cities and towns that have never recovered from economic recession and off-shored industrial jobs – and where resentment of Washington and the coastal establishment is as much a part of the terrain as coal seams and forests.

“We’ve got to take Trump seriously,” said Casey.

Indeed you do, senator.

Here are seven reasons why Donald Trump could actually become president:

"It's the Economy, Stupid." That's another famous Carville dictum (from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign).

It could sum up Trump's chances, too. Start with Casey’s concern about those towns out “west,” and add not only the well-documented stagnation of America's middle class but the possibility of another economic slowdown.

The rise of Trump could itself cause market tremors – it may already be doing so – but that won’t make it any less difficult (if not impossible) for Hillary Clinton to avoid being cast as the “incumbent” defender of the Obama economy.

Divided Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders is determined to carry his crusade through to July's Democratic convention in Philadelphia and to play the role that another failed candidate, the late Ted Kennedy, played in 1980 in New York: the star of someone else’s show. Kennedy’s dramatic farewell stole the moment from a sitting president, Jimmy Carter, and presaged Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan.

The dispirited Kennedy clan rallied, reluctantly, to Carter in the end because they still had a residual sense of loyalty to the party they had long dominated. But the Sanders crowd has no such loyalty, and their leader is not even a member in good standing of the Democratic Party. What’s more, the power of social media means that his troops can do what they wish by caucusing among themselves, no matter what Bernie says.

Republican Weakness. Some Republicans and conservative commentators, such as The New York Times' David Brooks, are warning Republicans that they face a “Joe McCarthy Moment,” in which they must repudiate Trump or risk the wrath of history’s judgment. And some Republicans are still vowing never to back Trump.

But GOP leaders such as Chairman Reince Priebus are more interested in immediate peace than their place in history, and amenable characters such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have said that nominating Trump is no big deal.

The GOP failed its last “Joe McCarthy moment.” It was Sen. McCarthy’s own persona, as displayed on a newfangled thing called broadcast television, that brought him down -- not his fellow Republicans.

Will Sen. Ted Cruz, who suspended his campaign Tuesday night, urge his evangelical minions to abandon the GOP this November? Nah. He will pipe down and hope to pick up the pieces in 2020.

Journalistic Weakness. It comes in two flavors. One is false equivalence. Reporters have yet to fully examine Trump’s record, especially the details of his business dealings and personal life, but soon enough his story will be yoked with and compared to Clinton’s, which will make it easier for Trump to slide by in the resulting din.

The second flavor is the media's hunger for an audience. The closer Trump gets to the White House, the more frightening he becomes, the more desperate his enemies become – the more eyeballs are focused on smartphones and TV sets.

That means more billions in “free” media for Trump.

Hillary the “Incumbent.” As much as Clinton talks about new ideas and a fresh start, she will be attempting the difficult task of holding the White House for the same party for a third-straight term. That last happened in 1988.

More important, Clinton and her husband represent a force in the Democratic Party that is a kind of incumbency within an incumbency, and that is a perilous place to be at a time when voters so despise Washington.

“There are reasons why a 74-year-old socialist from Brooklyn is doing so well,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ media adviser and friend for decades. “The level of dissatisfaction with the establishment is sky high, and she is a symbol of it.”

Not surprisingly, Trump is now claiming Sanders as a sort of ally. Will the senator cry foul and unleash his fury on Trump? Even if he does, will his supporters agree?

Trump Turns. The flip side of having no voting record and no consistent views is that you can reshape your positions at will to suit the moment. Watch Trump, the master huckster, play more to the social middle from here on. 

It’s cynical but cunning, and it could work. The bar for him is so low, the expectations are so low, that Trump has a lot of freedom to move.

The Numbers. Shockingly – given his outrageous, race-baiting and even violence-tinged rhetoric – Trump is not that far behind in the horse race as the “fall” campaign informally begins.

Nor does the Electoral College map look that impossible for him. With the possible exception of Arizona, there are few, if any, red states from 2012 that he would likely lose.

There are also at least five large blue states in which he could compete, especially for the votes of those former Reagan Democrats. Those states are Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and, yes, Pennsylvania. 

Together, they represent more than enough electoral votes to send Trump to the White House.

Bob Casey will be working hard to keep his state out of Trump's column, but there are no guarantees.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   April 19, 2016   12:22 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Even before votes are counted in the primary here, the future of the 2016 race is clear: Big wins by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will not prevent ever more toxic levels of chaos and viciousness between now and November.

Whatever comity there was between Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her rival for the Democratic nomination, has been shredded by a crossfire of personal attacks.

Sanders’ newfound New York-style aggression -- which some supporters have been waiting impatiently for him to unfurl -- has brought him into a tie with Clinton in the national polls. And he will continue to be well-funded and far shrewder than the Clinton campaign in the use of social media.

“We’re taking this all the way,” said Sanders’s top campaign adviser, Tad Devine. There was no doubt that he meant it -- whatever the final tally of Tuesday's state primary turns out to be.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has proven a formidable foe in the ground-level delegate wars. Infuriated by this (and by Cruz’s taunting braggadocio about his evangelical minions), Trump, the truculent GOP front-runner, is all but threatening violence at the Republican convention.

I hope it doesn't involve violence,” he said this week of July's convention. But if he is denied the nomination, he said, the scene in Cleveland would be “rough.”

And the formerly avuncular Sanders, brimming with his own resentment about The System, is using New York to amp up his rhetoric, in part to extract more online donations from loyalists.

The race in both parties is at a pivotal moment, and New York -- which rarely gets to play a role in nail-biter situations like this -- has been the perfect place for the nasty to get even nastier.

It’s the way things are here. In Minnesota, there really is such as thing as “Minnesota Nice.” Same for a state like Iowa.

But there's precious little “nice” in most of New York state. Outside the NYC environs, many people in cities like Buffalo and Rochester resent always having to play Pluto and Neptune to Manhattan's blazing sun.

And in a 2009 Travel + Leisure ranking of the 30 friendliest cities in American, New York City itself came in dead last.

When Clinton and Sanders went at it in their Brooklyn debate last week, the audience sounded like the bloodthirsty crowd at a boxing match in Madison Square Garden.

It was all too appropriate to the tenor of the 2016 campaign.

Six months from now, no matter who the finalists are, the mood of the race will be New York aggression writ large: more about voting against the person you don't like than voting for the one you do, more about candidates scaring their bases into turning out than gently wooing a vanished “middle.”

The most recent poll numbers show why.

Even as Clinton and Trump are expected to win their shared home state, they've grown less popular nationally after two weeks of campaigning in the mean streets.

In New York, Clinton has been the major loser of national stature if not convention delegates, finding herself the object of increasingly accusatory and personal attacks from Sanders.

According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, Clinton is now regarded negatively by 56 percent of the electorate, a jump of nearly 10 points from this time last year, by HuffPost Pollster figures. Clinton's campaign officials have attributed the rising unfavorables to Sanders’ recent attacks on her character.

Trump, meanwhile, is perhaps the most unpopular front-runner for a presidential nomination in modern history. Two-thirds of voters in the NBC/WSJ poll view him negatively. This would seem like a virtually insurmountable obstacle to his gaining the White House.

The traditional consultants’ rule is that a “negative rating” of more than 40-45 percent makes a candidate unelectable. If that’s the case, then Cruz can’t win the White House either, since he is viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of voters.

Sanders continues to be regarded favorably, and he is now running neck-and-neck with Clinton in several national polls. But that's come at a cost to his own image, which has grown somewhat more negative with voters in general.

Gone is starry-eyed Uncle Bernie, depicted by supporters as a friend to all living things and a humble servant of noble ideas, his odyssey set to the gentle strains of Simon & Garfunkel.

In New York, that figure has vanished, replaced by someone who's reared his head in both Vermont and Washington in the past: an acerbic and even arrogant politician, contemptuous of foes (and many putative friends) and adept at hiding his stiletto blade under a professorial cloak.

Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has maintained what might be called a truly winning profile, in that just 19 percent of the electorate reports having a negative view of him. But that may be because a great many people still have only the faintest idea who he is.

If he wants to get better known in this campaign, he had better get nastier -- certainly before Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, takes the GOP center stage next week.

Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.

Howard Fineman   |   March 16, 2016   12:54 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- “Then came Paris,” said Donald Trump, by way of explanation.

He was speaking Tuesday night, after taking his largest step yet toward the Republican presidential nomination.

As Trump told it, he'd launched his long-shot campaign as a spokesman for middle-class anger about illegal immigration; bad foreign trade deals; predatory economies such as those of China and Mexico; inept, weak politicians and diplomats; and militant, militarized jihadis around the world.

But then “radical Islamist terrorists” killed 130 people in coordinated attacks in the French capital. And suddenly his (and voters’) disparate fears of foreigners -- of THEM -- came into sharp focus, as an urgent, all-encompassing, xenophobic American nationalism.

Since then, his trajectory has been ever upward.

This despite the fact that, in the past 10 days, he's had to face crises created by others and by his own outrageous actions.

He was hit in Florida and other primary states with a crossfire of TV attacks worth tens of millions. A rising chorus of his fellow Republicans denounced him as a menace to the party and the country, and vowed not to support him even if he became the GOP nominee. And Trump himself produced bipartisan outrage by tolerating -- even encouraging -- violence against protesters at his rallies. He's been compared to race-baiting U.S. politicians such as George Wallace, and even to monsters like Adolf Hitler.

But all Trump did on Tuesday was win four out of five contests, losing only to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who won his home state as expected. Trump’s nominal main challenger, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, was shut out. His other principal rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, pulled the plug on his own campaign that same evening.

“The more we are attacked, the better our numbers get,” Trump said Tuesday night, seeming almost genuinely surprised. “Even I don’t understand it.”

But the world does. It rightly sees in Trump’s rise a giant, neon-bright American manifestation of a growing world phenomenon: an angry, populist nationalism that decries the globalization of economics, culture and demographics.

What does a nation mean anymore? And what does it mean to be the citizen of one, in terms of protecting the traditional prerogatives -- or at least the living standard -- of its middle class?

It should mean everything, Trump is saying. And voters, looking for an easy way out in a rapidly changing world, are listening.

It is the worldwide politics of the last stand.

Rapid improvements in technology, travel and telecommunications have created new opportunities for profit and human advancement.

But those same forces have created claustrophobia and vertigo for people who feel settled in their ways and places, and fear and hard times for people losing ground in the rush to globalize everything from sports to security.

A so-called “Washington Consensus” has more or less ruled the world since the official fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Its tenets include: faith in “free” trade; cooperation between liberal parties (nominally pro-labor) and global capital; a deep faith in education and brain-work credentials; lower taxes on businesses and less regulation of same; more tolerant laws and rules on immigration and fewer borders; more direct payments to lift the poorest out of poverty, while expecting macroeconomics alone to help the middle class.

All of it worked except for the part about the middle class -- whose wages, incomes and household worth have stagnated for decades.

It is against globalization in general and the Washington Consensus in particular that voters and even some governments around the world are reacting now with more vehemence.

And the threat of terrorist attacks such as those in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have brought all the strands together in one general outcry of middle-class nationalist rage.

Many countries, including China, never bought into the U.S.-led Washington Consensus to begin with. In that country, the leaders are the ones fomenting the nationalist cry.

But Western democracies are now facing uprisings of Trumpism, spurred by the toxic political combination of waves of immigrants and refugees; job losses and flat wages; and terrorist threats from the likes of al Qaeda and the self-described Islamic State.

In Germany, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party gained ground in local elections last week. Leading officials in Hungary are reviving the ultimate in European “THEM” narratives against the Jews. Marine Le Pen continues her rise in France, and even the tolerant Scandinavians are surrendering to the new xenophobia.

In the U.S., Republicans leaders claim to abhor Trump, whose platform includes: a total temporary ban on visits by non-U.S. Muslims; the immediate deportation of 11 million undocumented persons in the U.S., most Latino and many of them children; abrogation of the recent Iran deal and of international trade deals; and the construction of a “big beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border.

But Cruz, the leading challenger left to Trump, holds many of the same views, just in a more legalistic and slightly milder form.

And recent polls show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters support Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslim visitors to the U.S.

Fear is taking over American politics. And the world is not far behind.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophobe, racist, misogynistbirther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.


Howard Fineman   |   March 8, 2016    6:55 PM ET

TORONTO -- Gerald Butts, a top adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, received an email this past October when his man won the office.

It came from Butt’s friend and fellow political consultant David Axelrod, who had played a similar role for U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Congratulations on a great victory," Axelrod said. "Now don't screw it up."

Butts laughed as he recalled the email the other day in Toronto. He, his boss and Trudeau's inner circle were making final preparations for the prime minister's visit to Washington this week. Trudeau will be feted with the first White House state dinner in 19 years for Canada's leader.

It's not likely that Trudeau -- or Obama, for that matter -- will "screw it up."

But it's important for millions of people that they don't, because the destinies of Canada and the United States are more closely intertwined than ever. On border security, climate change, trade and foreign policy, working together in relative harmony is a requirement, not an option. 

The challenge for the two men will be to turn their personal similarities and the camaraderie of their previous brief encounters into concrete measures. They have to begin by repairing a government-to-government relationship that was strained under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a tea party-style conservative who was ultimately frozen out by the Obama administration. 

Our most important relationship is with the U.S., and I am going to do everything I can to bring us closer together.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Trudeau and Obama need to work quickly, since the latter has only 10 months left in office and America could wind up with a Harper-esque successor in 2017.

"We just have to do as much as we can in the meantime and not worry about that," said Butts. "And we think we'll make a good start."

Canada now has a prime minister with foreign policy views similar to Obama's -- namely, that the best and most useful way to neutralize "radical Islamist terrorism" is to engage with Islam and the Middle East diplomatically and commercially, and not merely with bombs, drones and surveillance.

When Pierre Trudeau, the current PM's father, was prime minister -- from 1968 to 1984, with one brief interruption -- the U.S. and Canada were often at odds over foreign policy. In the early years, the U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam that the Canadians abhorred. Trudeau also infuriated U.S. administrations by dealing openly with the likes of Fidel Castro and the communist Chinese government, the latter before the U.S. did.

There is a faint echo of those strains now, as Justin Trudeau followed through on a campaign promise to end Canadian participation in allied bombing runs over Syria. But Obama reacted mildly, giving Trudeau some domestic political cover by praising him for increasing the number of non-combatant Canadian instructors in the region.

Trudeau wants to move Canada toward full diplomatic relations with Iran, though carefully and cautiously; the U.S. president hasn't gone quite that far yet. Trudeau is under pressure to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia; that kind of breach with the Saudis remains all but unthinkable in Washington. Trudeau wants a more even-handed approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues; Obama does, too, even if he doesn't put it that way.

These and other matters will no doubt come up at a joint press conference the two will have in Washington -- although the event is almost sure to be dominated by queries about Trudeau's increasingly wary comments (made to The Huffington Post) about Donald Trump and the U.S. election scene.

The more immediate anti-terrorism issue involves borders, which is likely to be the subject of the most important "announce-able" this week. The United States essentially wants a more secure perimeter around all three NAFTA countries (Mexico, Canada and the U.S.) to make it more difficult for suspected bad actors to enter the U.S.

But that means harmonizing U.S. and Canadian border regimes more closely, and overcoming both bureaucratic inertia and Canada's long-standing ties to other countries, including those of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Canada also wants it made easier to ship goods to the U.S., with which it does $2 billion worth of trade each day. Loosening and tightening borders at the same time isn't easy.

In the realm of climate change, the Canadians have abandoned hope that the U.S. will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama rejected. "It's dead and we're not worrying about it anymore," said Butts, an expert on environmental issues as well as campaigns. But Canada is pursuing other pipeline projects that lie entirely within its borders, and the Trudeau administration has no intention of abandoning them.

In other words, while Trudeau promised to be Obama's climate change ally during the Paris talks in December, he may find it hard to deliver. The prime minister is already finding it difficult to persuade provincial leaders to go along with a new carbon tax. He may have to unilaterally impose a federal levy, but he has not committed to that course and it is politically risky.

Trudeau travels to Washington this week with his entire family in tow: wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, his wife's parents and his three young children. "They all want to visit the Smithsonian," he said.

While they are doing so, Trudeau will meet with Capitol Hill leaders, Cabinet officials and the president over the course of three days.

"We'll get a lot done, but this is just the beginning," said Trudeau. "Our most important relationship is with the U.S., and I am going to do everything I can to bring us closer together."

Howard Fineman   |   February 29, 2016   12:08 PM ET

HOUSTON -- If today’s Republican Party had a mother church, it might be Joel Osteen’s suburban Lakewood Church, an evangelical outreach machine with an arena sanctuary, 50,000 members and a service on Sirius radio, so that you can be saved via satellite.

It’s also a good place to see where the GOP’s 36-year-old Reagan-built base is becoming outmoded, like the Brutalist architecture of the downtown buildings here and the shabby concrete on the triple-decker highway overpasses.

In many ways, Donald Trump is the logical summation and endpoint of a Republican Party built primarily on the support of straight, church-going white people, especially in the South.

And interviews with some of the Lakewood faithful suggest that if Trump is the GOP presidential nominee, that demographic could well become a prison from which there would be no escape other than a woman named Hillary in the White House.

After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican National Committee published a blunt self-analysis, insisting that the party would face doom if it did not massively reach out to Latinos, gay people, millennials and the rest of the remixed society of 21st-century America.

At Lakewood, where the main interest is saving souls wherever you can find them and whatever they look like, they understand what the GOP analysts were saying.

A recent youth service in the early evening looked like any concert scene, except that of the thousands of young people in the rows and aisles, some were clutching dog-eared study Bibles as they swayed to loud country-rock tunes about being saved.


It was a hip, integrated young crowd: interracial couples, plenty of piercings, hobnail boots, neon hair. And no love for Trump.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a fringe candidate,” said Charlie Hurd, 26, a former college basketball player who now teaches elementary school gym. He sat in a side row with a Bible open on his lap.

“His whole thing is to say nasty things and not offer anything real," Hurd said. "And the things he is offering aren’t going to help.”

Preston Jameson, 24, a mattress store manager, said that he was sticking with home-state Sen. Ted Cruz in part because he doesn’t buy the idea that Trump is a real Christian, given his bluster and bitter antagonisms. “I want a politician who's motivated by faith in God," he said.

Trump is doing well among evangelicals generally, and may well win the category in most of the states on Super Tuesday. But the sentiment at the Lakewood youth service is a larger warning for the party, in 2016 and beyond.

An afternoon service for Latinos, held in both Spanish and English and attended by several thousand people, offered up even more for the GOP to worry about. Evangelical Christian Latinos, many of whom are converts from Catholicism, are a growing and increasingly important constituency in realms of both faith and politics.

They are the tip of the spear of what was, once upon a time, the Bush family’s successful effort to reach out for Latino votes. In his second-term races for both governor of Texas and president of the U.S., George W. Bush won over 40 percent of that vote.

To judge by some of the comments after the Latino service, if the election were held today, Trump would get zero.

“If Donald Trump is the nominee, then Hillary Clinton will be president and none of the people here today will vote for him,” said Hilda Flores, a Republican who owns a wedding venue business. “I am a Republican, but the idea that he is going to try to deport 11 million people -- wrong! Wrong!"

"I’m not for Ted Cruz either, for that reason," she went on. "I’m going with Marco Rubio. At least he has tried to do something to make a deal on that.”

Patrick Campbell, a white man who was attending the service with his Latina wife, agreed as he hurried out the door with his kids.

“Donald Trump?" he said. "Forget it!”

In 2012, Romney won only 27 percent of the Latino vote. He lost badly among millennials as well.

Trump -- who's unpopular with Hispanic voters and under-30 voters nationwide -- will have to do a YUGE amount of repenting if he hopes even to approach Romney's performance among the youth and Latinos of Lakewood, judging from the Sunday before Super Tuesday.

Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophobe, racist, misogynistbirther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   February 26, 2016   10:03 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s pet dog, Toto, pulls back a curtain to reveal the mortal mountebank at the pathetic heart of a machine built on intimidation and fear.

In the Houston GOP debate on Thursday, a terrier-like Sen. Marco Rubio played Toto, unsettling Donald Trump and -- more importantly -- dramatizing an enduring truth about political leaders: Their greatest strength is also their greatest vulnerability.

Consider: A charming ability to connect with strangers made Bill Clinton, and nearly unmade him. Americans liked George W. Bush's Texas-made sense of certitude, until it led us into a war with Iraq that we still regret. Barack Obama's cerebral cool got him elected in the economic tumult of 2008, but that same distance has cost him.

Now, here is "businessman" Trump. No one with that main descriptor has been elected president. But "businessman" has been, and still is, his main and even only calling card. Because of Trump's success -- he claims to be worth $11 billion -- he argues that he is free from the taint of politics, unencumbered by "special interests" and able to unleash the politically incorrect id of the American psyche.

But if you live by the "business," you can die by the "business." For months, the press and the Republican Party seemed oddly -- and inexcusably -- detached from that obvious point, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted.

But now, that has changed. Suddenly, finally, Trump's alleged "empire" is beginning to get the scrutiny it deserves.

The turning point wasn't the debate, but three things that preceded it. Former Gov. Mitt Romney demanded that Trump reveal his taxes for recent years; Bloomberg probed into the spotty records of Trump's global deals; and The New York Times looked at how Trump staffs his Mar-a-Lago club with foreign workers on temporary visas.

Taken together, the three opened gaping holes in Trump's claim to be a model of America-first, globally winning business success.

Thinking like the businessman he is and not the politician he now needs to be, Trump gave the worst possible explanation for why he hasn't released his returns: He is being audited. Moguls get audited, some of them every year. It's almost a badge of honor. But not if you're running for president.

The Bloomberg story undercut the message that Trump offers in his prosperity gospel-style stump speech: that he can and will transfer his own gift for the "art of the deal" to the world and to struggling members of the middle class.

The Mar-a-Lago story hits closest to home, literally. Trump wants to expel 11 million undocumented workers and build a giant wall along the Mexican border. In the name of fighting terrorism, he wants to "temporarily" ban entry into the U.S. by any of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

But when it comes to his club, which Trump describes as his "home away from home" on weekends and holidays, he eschews American workers in favor of Romanian immigrants on short-term visas.

The Times story was posted online Thursday, just in time for the Houston debate. And Rubio pulled back the curtain.

There is a  corollary to the strength-as-weakness rule in presidential politics. In America, you are allowed to sell yourself any way you wish; you can claim to be whomever you want. That’s the country that F. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. But the narrative that you choose is a fatal trap if you cannot actually live up to its demands.

Can Donald Trump? It may be too late for the Republicans to find out, but it’s more than eight months until Election Day.

So, another rule comes into play: A month is a lifetime in politics. 

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistbirther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   February 9, 2016   10:08 PM ET

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Is this the dawn of the age of tyranny by celebrity?

That’s what the dyspeptic but very smart former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu Sr. thinks after watching fear-mongering billionaire Donald Trump win Tuesday's primary here.

“So the joke about Kanye West running in the future isn’t a joke,” he said. “We are now in a time when all you have to do is be a celebrity. You don’t have to have real positions. You don’t have to have details. You don’t have to have experience. All you have to do is be famous.”

“Frankly, I’m frightened for the country,” said Sununu, who also served as chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush.

Sweeping in and out of TV studios here in the last day or two before the primary, Trump conveyed the aura of the TV star he is and was, glad-handing staffers and anyone he may have recognized from other television shows.

He is surrounded by an ever-growing security detail, primarily of his own men, who hover just out of camera range with a look that is adoring of the boss and menacing to anyone else.

Secure (at least for now) in the knowledge of his own popularity, Trump blithely bats away detailed questions about his vague policy proposals. And when he's done, he just as blithely praises the hosts for asking questions he hasn’t answered.

He represents something new, but arguably inevitable, in American democracy.

There have been famous people before who have run for the highest office, but they have always been military heroes. An exception was Wendell Willkie, a well-known businessman who became the GOP nominee in 1940. But he did not run in the primaries and was chosen in convention.

Trump is closer to P.T. Barnum or Walt Disney than he is to Willkie: a businessman, yes, but far better known by most American voters as the longtime host of a TV show called “The Apprentice.” An entire generation grew up watching him “fire” fake business contestants.

Trump has traded on his fame from the start of his utterly unorthodox campaign: hurling personal insults through his Twitter account (which has 5 million followers); making outrageous proposals to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and “temporarily” bar all non-American Muslims from entering the country; delighting in the use of foul and inappropriate language at his rallies.

It’s a show -- a dangerous show -- that has caught the attention and even the support of a considerable slice of America.

And it is one that the country's founders feared. As they drafted the U.S. Constitution and then argued for its adoption, they stressed that they were looking for -- and thought they had found -- a middle way between monarchy and the mob.

But they perhaps could not have envisioned an entertainer/businessman who would try to combine the power and the danger of both the monarch and the mob together.

That is what Trump is trying to do, and what he did in New Hampshire.

If Trump can do it this way -- with no ground organization, with no real background in politics -- with tweets and fame and social media and manipulation of the media, well then, he has changed the nature of our system for good.

“Ben Franklin famously said that the founders had created a Republic, if we could keep it,” Sununu said. “I hope we still can.”

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynistbirther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   February 8, 2016    7:32 AM ET

MANCHESTER, N.H. ― For most of America, Super Bowl Sunday was a day to relax. For presidential candidates and New Hampshire voters, it was the day before the day before the famous primary.

Elm Street, the main thoroughfare in this small, post-industrial city on the Merrimack River, was crowded on Sunday with candidates, Secret Service vans, surrogates, handlers, reporters and shouting volunteers carrying signs.

Everyone already knows at least one thing about Tuesday’s results: In one way or another, they will be a shocking surprise. Some 40 percent of New Hampshire voters say they are undecided even now. More than that, they are fully aware that their state primary “brand” depends on doing something unexpected.

They will.

But even before Tuesday night, we can offer some takeaways from New Hampshire that are relevant both in the state and elsewhere.

Some results, so to speak, are already in. Here they are.

  • Hillary will have to resort to superdelegates: The Clinton camp is flooding New Hampshire, even more than it did Iowa, with party officials, elected leaders and other “surrogates.” They are all over the state in an onslaught rarely seen here. “They’re everywhere,” said Jackie Cilley, a rare Democratic state official who is supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I just saw Sen. Corey Booker!” The migration is symbolic of, and a precursor to, Hillary Clinton’s survival strategy in what is likely to be a long, drawn-out struggle with the well-funded Sanders. Clinton will rely ― will almost certainly HAVE to rely ― on hundreds of superdelegates who are party leaders. She was tempted to do the same in 2008, when she narrowly lost the nomination to then-Sen. Barack Obama. Contesting the choice of the first African-American major party nominee was a non-starter politically. This time, there will be no such compunction.

  • Voters are into it this year: Turnout was high in Iowa and is going to be very high in New Hampshire ― that much is clear from state officials. The pattern is almost certain to continue throughout the year, and it’s a blessed counter to the notion that voters are so cynical and turned off by politics and government that they will check out of the game in 2016. Not true. And love them or loathe them, two big reasons are outsider candidates Donald Trump and Sanders, who are drawing large numbers of new or only causal voters into the process this year.

  • Vast ideological chasm: With a democratic socialist (Sanders) on the left, a literalist, biblical constitutionalist (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz) on the right and a reality TV authoritarian strongman (you know who) looming over all, the race here and going forward is sure to be one of the most ideologically diverse in modern politics. The candidates are well-funded and in it for the long haul. “I’ve been in politics here since Jack Kennedy and I have never seen anything like this kind of spread,” said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro. “From Bernie to Cruz and all the rest on the right? Where’s the middle?”

  • The tech world has given us a Rubiobot: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s disastrous performance in Saturday night’s ABC debate may not destroy his chances here, but it has branded his campaign with the image of a pre-programmed robot. What he does about that, if there is anything he can do, will decide whether he can make it in the long haul as the presumptive darling of what is left of the Washington-based Republican establishment.

  • Bush exit right, pursued by bear: That famous Shakespeare stage direction applies to the Bush family, except they are chasing themselves out of their generally good name in New England, if not America. Rather than tout himself and his family ― because that is seen as a no-no in this supposedly anti-everything year ― “Jeb!” is now mostly known in New Hampshire and more broadly as the guy eager to attack everyone else on virtually anything, and do it nonstop. “I don’t get it,” said former Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, a top adviser to Bush rival John Kasich. “Don’t they have another generation coming along?”

  • Being the guy with the cannoli is not the way to win: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, aka Peter Clemenza, wrapped the length of piano wire around Rubio’s neck in the ABC debate, and the irascible governor seems to have a special dark place in his heart for the handsome Florida senator. But despite his vigor and endorsement from the Union-Leader newspaper, Christi, even more than Bush, is a poster boy for the idea that negative is not a way to win ― even, if not especially, in a year when voters have such a dim view of the future.

  • Trump is learning: He may not win, he may not last, but Donald Trump has learned a lot in a relatively short space of time about how to be an actual candidate. He is and always will be given to outbursts of rage or racism or resentment (or all three) ― every megalomaniac is ― but he showed in his calm reaction to Iowa and his lowered expectations here that he has found a sense of the inside game.

  • Bernie has an orange ski cap problem: In Iowa in 2004, then-Gov. Howard Dean was the Bernie Sanders-ish candidate, a reformist outsider running against money in politics. Like Sanders, he drew young volunteers from across America. They all were given bright orange “Dean for President” ski caps and dispatched across the state, where they knocked on doors and proceeded, mostly, to scare the heck out of the locals. The Dean campaign simply couldn’t control the enthusiasm, or sometimes the micro-tactics, of his horde. We’re learning that the same is sometimes true with Sanders ― the Bernie Bros being the latest example of what the 74-year-old senator needs to contend with here and elsewhere.

  • Being old isn’t a killer: Trump is 69, Sanders is 74 and Clinton is 68. For some reason, the “new generation” mantra ― almost always a winner in American politics ― isn’t working. The most popular ad on the campaign trail has a Simon & Garfunkel song as the soundtrack. So Baby Boomers, it appears, will have one last chance to save America, or do even more damage than they already have done as the Greediest Generation.

Howard Fineman   |   February 5, 2016    6:16 PM ET

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Republicans who aren’t in Donald Trump’s camp and independent polltakers and experts here are increasingly convinced that the fear-peddling billionaire is losing momentum and could even lose on Election Day.

“I’ve been convinced since day one that he would not win in the end,” said Andy Smith, the respected dean of New Hampshire polling and a teacher at the University of New Hampshire.

Key insiders for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) of course say the same thing -- but they are saying it with much more conviction than they did a few weeks ago.

“We have a chance to catch him,” insisted former Sen. John Sununu, who is a key figure in Kasich's campaign. “People are looking for ways NOT to vote for Trump.”

More than a third of voters have said they definitely would NOT vote for Trump, a very high number at the same time that there is a huge undecided vote, Smith told The Huffington Post in an interview. “There is a ceiling on his support, not a floor.”

Though Smith's latest poll puts Trump at 28 percent and his nearest competitor -- Rubio -- at 15, Smith thinks that there is time for Trump to fall further, and perhaps for Rubio, Kasich or Cruz to catch up to him.

“Right now it is a slow leak in the tire, but the tire could also explode,” said Smith. “Don’t forget that in 2004, Howard Dean fell 14 points in one day after his meltdown in Iowa.”

On television, Rubio ads are in particularly heavy rotation on local stations, aimed at women and low-information voters who are slow to make up their mind and are still available.

At the same time, Cruz is being hit on TV with a barrage of negative “independent” PAC ads aimed at shaking loose his support.

GOP types continue to disparage Trump’s ground game here, especially after watching him underperform by 6 points or more in Iowa.

For example, other candidates harvest large amounts of data before and at local events, either in person or via apps such as Eventbrite. Trump’s team gets a minimum of information and then does little to follow up on it, operatives say.

“The big rally is not how you do it here,” said David Carney, a longtime GOP operative and campaign manager in New Hampshire.

Saturday night’s ABC-run and RNC-sponsored debate at St. Anselm College will likely be Trump's last test before New Hampshire voters head to the polls.

In this case, he will not only be fending off the substantive attacks of others. He will also be trying to fight off the still-under-the-radar but real sense that he could become a two-time loser.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.