Memorial Day ushers in what could be a fiery political summer

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Memorial Day isn’t just the gateway to summer this year — it heralds a sizzling season of politics that threatens to boil over into the ugliest election in decades this fall.

The final weeks of the primary season — which effectively wraps up June 7 when the last round of states, including California and New Jersey, hold their contests — offer a preview of the months ahead for both parties. And it isn’t pretty. In Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republicans and the Democrats will field the most unpopular nominees in living memory, a fact that has third-party dreamers, including Libertarians, sensing an opening.

Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, has already laced more invective into the 2016 race than any contest in recent history, with tirades against Mexicans, Muslims and “loser” establishment leaders. No personal indiscretion or past scandal is off the table in his bid to bring down the Clintons.

In just the last few days of biting attacks, he’s branded Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “goofy” and “Pocahontas,” raked over Bill Clinton’s sex life and publicly touted debunked conspiracy theories on the suicide of Hillary Clinton’s friend and ex-White House counsel Vince Foster that were once limited to the political fringe.

The dynamic isn’t much better on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders is mathematically blocked from clinching the nomination but won’t go down without a fight. He is drawing massive crowds to his campaign rallies and insists he will carry on through the convention. Driving home his plan to stay in the race even after the final votes are counted next week, Sanders called on the Democratic National Committee to remove some Clinton supporters from key convention spots.

Meanwhile, the State Department inspector general released a scathing report last week slamming Clinton for not following the rules by setting up a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, ensuring the issue remains alive in the coming months.

Coming to a head

The tumult in both major parties will come to a head when they hold conventions during the final two weeks of July. Both are expected to be heated events, with massive protests expected at the GOP convention in Cleveland and potential disruptions on the floor in Philadelphia, where Democrats will meet.

Trump and Sanders have condemned unrest that has erupted among some supporters. But their rhetoric is doing nothing to cool tempers and expectations of devoted supporters.

So overheated is the mood that there are fears that protests at both conventions could erupt into violence — following clashes between anti-Trump activists and police at recent rallies, scuffles in the billionaire’s seething crowds and heckling and chair throwing among Sanders backers at a state party convention in Nevada.

For Clinton, it’s a summer to be endured rather than enjoyed, as she must surmount a series of obstacles before she can take a clear run at Trump. Emerging from the convention with a united party will be crucial as a string of recent polls show her locked in a neck-and-neck race with the billionaire.

She is also on tenterhooks for the possible conclusion of an FBI probe into whether she compromised national security with the private email server she used as secretary of state. A bombshell charge that she broke the law — though not expected by many legal analysts — could turn the presidential race on its head.

Whatever happens, Republicans are using the email saga to argue Clinton is guilty of a pattern of shady behavior that disqualifies her from the Oval Office.

Clinton, of course, is no slouch at insults and is already going on the offense. She has spent the past week seizing on statements from Trump’s business years in which he said market downturns can be a good time to make money — all in an effort to define Trump early and negatively in the eyes of voters.

“This man, who is an unqualified loose cannon, is within reach of the most important job in the world,” Clinton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview last week. “I know that Trump thinks this is a point of pride, that people like me or President (Barack) Obama raise questions and criticize him. But it’s not. This is not a reality show. It’s not just politics. It’s really serious.”

Still, Trump has done better than pundits predicted in consolidating the support of the Republican Party establishment behind him — including former primary foes like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, though House Speaker Paul Ryan is playing a little harder to get.

Some conservative holdouts are still hoping that a third-party candidate could emerge to offer a largely symbolic alternative to voters who cannot face backing Trump or Clinton. But there is one great flaw in the strategy: No serious political figure seems willing to take on the challenge.

Therefore, the Libertarian Party could become a vehicle for disaffected conservatives — and on Sunday Libertarian activists nominated former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.

If the Libertarian ticket gains momentum, it could conceivably act as a spoiler in some closely contested swing states that will decide November’s election.

But it is the campaign dramas that can’t be predicted right now that could be most decisive.

Several pending summer Supreme Court decisions, for instance on President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration, on abortion and affirmative action, could spark a campaign trail backlash.

Something unexpected always seems to rock the campaign during the summer months. In 2008, for example, the financial crisis broke during the dog days of summer and helped Obama claim the White House. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% comment at a private fundraiser mushroomed into a full blown scandal by September.

The big scandal of the 2016 season could be lurking just around the corner.

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