(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

THE MORNING PLUM:

So as the battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders comes down to the wire in Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaigns have now begun battling aggressively over the question of which candidate is more electable in November.

Not to go all both-sides on you, but in this argument, both campaigns make very good points that are not being taken seriously enough, and deserve more discussion.

The Clinton campaign is set to air this new, minute-long ad in Iowa and New Hampshire that has the feel of a closing argument:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released a new campaign ad on Jan. 14, ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses. (TWP)

The ad makes the case that Clinton is the only Democratic candidate who has the fight, gravitas, and multi-faceted experience to handle both international crises and domestic economic challenges. The new spot has echoes of the infamous 3 A.M. ad that Clinton ran against Barack Obama in 2008, which argued that when your children are sleeping and a crisis is unfolding, the person you want in the White House is someone as experienced as Clinton.

But Clinton’s new ad is both less of an attack and also goes a bit farther. It is both an argument for Clinton’s fitness as commander in chief and an electability argument, in the sense that it suggests that only a candidate with this fleshed out a profile can win in November.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports this morning that Clinton allies are increasingly making the case that Sanders’ self-avowed socialism makes him unelectable in a general election, and the Clinton campaign is arguing that Republican rhetoric about the Dem primary shows that Republicans would rather face Sanders.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made waves as a democratic socialist presidential candidate. Here's what you need to know about being a democratic socialist and how it's different from socialism. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

The Sanders campaign is reacting angrily, but — putting aside the debate over whether this is a subtle form of “red-baiting” — it is legitimate, generally speaking, for the Clinton campaign to raise such electability concerns. The Sanders campaign argues that head-to-head polling matchups show him performing better against the GOP candidates than Clinton does, and that only he can win over independents in the necessary numbers. But head-to-head general election polling right now is meaningless; Sanders has not been subjected to sustained attacks; and the general election audience knows Clinton far better than it knows Sanders.

What’s more, the political science tells us that perceptions of moderation in a candidate — as opposed to perceptions that a candidate is outside the mainstream — actually can make a difference. So does the history (see Goldwater, Barry, and McGovern, George). To be clear, I’m not saying Sanders could not overcome perceptions as out of the mainstream, if such perceptions do currently exist. He might be able to do that. It’s possible such perceptions might not form at all. But it’s also very possible that Republicans could successfully paint Sanders as an ideological outlier, and that this could matter. It’s not crazy, illegitimate, or out of bounds to raise these concerns.  The Sanders campaign has begun to address them, by arguing that Sanders has already widely been described as a “socialist.” But most voters simply aren’t tuned in right now, and the Sanders campaign should explain in more detail why or how he’ll be able to resist efforts to ideologically pigeon-hole him.

At the same time, though, the Sanders campaign also makes some good arguments. The Sanders camp points out that only he can motivate younger and newer voters, as evidenced by what we’re seeing in the Democratic primary. The question of whether Clinton can motivate those voters is a very serious concern, one that has been raised by veteran Democratic pollsters such as Stan Greenberg, and one that really does call into question whether Clinton will be able to win in November. Meanwhile, to my knowledge the Clinton camp has not meaningfully addressed the fair point that she made similar “electability” arguments against Barack Obama in 2008, which turned out (obviously) to be very wrong.

All of which is to say that the dispute over “electability” deserves serious treatment.

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* SANDERS SURGES IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: A new CNN/WMUR poll finds that Bernie Sanders has jumped to a 60-33 lead in New Hampshire. Some details:

On the economy, New Hampshire voters now clearly give Sanders the edge over Clinton as the candidate more trusted to handle it: 57% say Sanders would best handle it versus 33% for Clinton….The poll suggests Clinton continues to be dogged by questions about her honesty, with the share saying she is the least honest in the field now at 55%, up from 46% in December.

The polling averages put Sanders up nine points in the state. Still, even if Sanders wins New Hampshire and Iowa, the question then becomes whether that is enough to shift the dynamic in the states that follow.

* DEMS TO HOLD TOWN HALL IN IOWA: CNN announced this morning that it will be holding a town hall meeting with the Democratic candidates in Iowa next Monday, one week before the Iowa voting. The idea is to expose Clinton and Sanders to questioning from voters.

If Sanders keeps surging in New Hampshire, the stakes of this town hall will be high, as a Clinton win in Iowa will be crucial to offsetting a Sanders victory a week later. The polling averages show Clinton’s lead in Iowa has dwindled to four points, and the race is tightening fast.

* DOWN TO THE WIRE IN IOWA: Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Annie Karni serve up some intensive reporting on the state of play in Iowa, discovering that Clinton’s main problem is that her argument is just not a great fit with the state’s inspiration-craving Dem voters. But:

Sanders has his own weaknesses — namely, a late-to-the-game field operation that is struggling mightily to harness his momentum into an effective organization. And it’s Sanders who has the most to lose: He has enough cash to campaign for months, but a Clinton win here could be a coup de grâce, nullifying his probable win in New Hampshire and giving her momentum heading into Nevada and South Carolina where she, not he, has an inherent advantage. And Clinton remains a formidable front-runner who stands an even-odds chance of winning.

Sure, but if Clinton loses in Iowa, the roar of Hillary-is-doomed punditry will be equal parts deafening and misleading.

* REPUBLICANS TO GET TOUGH ON SYRIAN REFUGEES AGAIN: Carl Hulse reports that Senate Republicans are set to hold a vote today on a House bill, passed last fall, that would tighten up restrictions on admitting Syrian refugees.

Obama, of course, would all but certainly veto this measure. But, as Hulse notes: Republicans see little political downside in pressing the bill.” Of course they don’t. Getting tough on Syrian refugees is a certain political winner.

 * GOP PANIC ABOUT DONALD TRUMP IS ON FULL BOIL: The Wall Street Journal reports that Republicans are increasingly panicking as the realization sinks in that a Donald Trump nomination is a real possibility:

Mr. Trump has shown remarkable staying power and appears to be assembling a disparate block of supporters that could portend surprises in many states. He continues to draw huge crowds in highly unorthodox places….In WSJ polling, his support among primary voters is similar to what then-Sen. Barack Obama had at this point in 2008, and stronger than Sen. John McCain that year or Mitt Romney four years later.

Uh oh. And the first voting starts in under two weeks.

* DONALD TRUMP’S WHOPPER ABOUT UNEMPLOYMENT: Donald Trump has taken to saying regularly that the unemployment is around 23 percent. Glenn Kessler considers this claim from all angles and finds that it’s a big fat whopper in every possible way. This is fun:

So why does Trump claim 23 percent? We have no idea, since as usual his campaign refused to explain his reasoning.

It’s shocking that a campaign that is premised entirely on the idea that the details don’t matter in the slightest would decline to explain Trump’s “reasoning,” which seems like a pretty charitable description of his mental processes.

* AND THAT OBAMACARE ALTERNATIVE IS COMING ANY DAY NOW. REALLY! The Hill reports that Republicans are split over whether to offer an Obamacare alternative, with House Republicans still promising one, while Senate Republicans are worried that offering specifics will give Dems a way to attack vulnerable GOP incumbents. Note:

“Until we are in a position to get a new president who will actually sign the repeal of ObamaCare, the president is going to veto it. So it’s really more of a hypothetical,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn….Cornyn said Senate Republicans are content instead to talk about healthcare reform principles in the months ahead. “The principles are pretty clear. It’s portability, it’s affordability, it’s access, all the things you’ve heard us talk about ever since the ObamaCare debate,” he said.

Rather than do the hard work of developing and coalescing behind an actual policy alternative, better to talk about broad principles that everyone likes. It’s a lot safer and easier!