THE MORNING PLUM:

CNN has published a truly remarkable series of interviews with scores and scores of Donald Trump supporters across the country that helps shed some light on a key question about the 2016 contest. Are Trump’s supporters backing him because his Fortress America approach — his American Greatness nationalism — is resonating with his backers’ economic and cultural anxieties?

Or is the explanation a bit darker — are they backing him precisely because the xenophobic and demagogic elements of his rhetoric, i.e., the call for forcible mass deportations and the banning of Muslims, are themselves resonating with these voters? Or is it some mix of the two, combined with his backers’ sheer enjoyment of the show he is putting on?

Here are some quotes that CNN shares from Trump backers: “It’s not fair to let the illegals stay here.” “It seems like we really go overboard to make sure all these other nationalities nowadays and colors have their fair shake of it, but no one’s looking out for the white guy anymore.” “White Americans founded this country. We are being pushed aside because of the President’s administration and the media.” “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. All the Muslims have to go!” “I don’t want them here. Who knows what they’re going to bring into this country?” “We can’t look at a Muslim and tell if they’re a terrorist or friendly.”

As CNN delicately puts it, many of the people interviewed “were not turned off by Trump’s provocative remarks,” but instead were “inclined to agree with his statements and his unvarnished approach to self-expression.”

Now, it’s certainly possible that what many of these voters really like about Trump’s rhetoric is that he is unfurling a big, fat middle finger in the direction of all of our political conventions. It’s also possible that many of these backers are responding to Trump’s basic message, as Ryan Lizza puts it, that “Americans are being cheated,” and “they need to hire someone who will cut them a better deal.” The quotes collected by CNN are suffused with the sentiment that “illegals” are on some basic level cheating ordinary Americans.

But it’s also possible that these voters feel heard precisely because Trump is expressing sentiments about immigrants and Muslims in such an “unvarnished” way, as CNN puts it. After all, this week’s WaPo/ABC poll found that Trump is doing disproportionately well among Republican voters who believe immigrants “weaken American society.”

All of this is more than parlor game speculation. It goes to the heart of what Trumpism tells us about the future of conservatism and the GOP. As Michael Strain argues today, reform conservatives agree that Trumpism may be rooted in the failure of the GOP to address working and middle class concerns, and reform conservatives have tried to assemble a policy agenda that involves targeted government intervention to help people economically. But, Strain asks, what if it’s too late?

The nomination of Donald Trump would be a complete disaster for conservatism. It poses the very real risk of shattering conservatism’s most viable political vehicle — the Republican Party — by transforming the party into an institution that, among other things, embraces morally appalling policies (the mass roundup and forced deportation of 11 million unlawful immigrants; “You’re going to have a deportation force”) and un-American intolerance (a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the country) and that stokes prejudice, nativism and cruelty. Conservatism, properly understood, is motivated in large part by gratitude and aspiration. Trump’s message and agenda are motivated by anger, fear and exclusion.

But, hey, no worries: GOP elites who are now coming around to Trump appear to be concluding that he may just be kidding about all this mass deportations and banning Muslims stuff.

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* SUPER TIGHT IN IOWA: A new Quinnipiac poll finds Bernie Sanders leading Hillary Clinton by 49-45 among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers, which is unchanged from two weeks ago and is within the margin of error. The breakdown:

Likely Democratic Caucus participants 18 to 44 years old back Sanders over Clinton 78-21 percent. Clinton is ahead 53-39 percent among voters 45 to 64 years old and 71-21 percent among voters over 65 years old.

So a lot turns on whether those young Sanders backers vote — which means a lot turns on organization. Watch the polling average, which has Iowa tightening to a dead heat.

 * BOTH CAMPAIGNS SEE SLIGHT CLINTON EDGE: Patrick Healy reports that private polling for both Clinton and Sanders shows her “with a slight edge.” Take that for what it’s worth — mainly, it’s confirmation that it will all come down to organization.

* BERNIE SAYS HE CAN LOSE IOWA AND STILL WIN: Bernie Sanders had this to say to reporters about the Iowa caucuses:

“If I lose Iowa by two votes and end up with virtually the same number of delegates, is that a must-lose situation? Is that a tragedy? No. We are running a campaign that will take us to the convention and I’m very proud of the kinds of enormous gains we have made.”

There is a lot to this. But a big Sanders win would make it more likely that the contest remains seriously competitive, because the Hillary-is-doomed coverage might shift later contests.

A crowd of more than 14,539 people packed an exhibit hall and overflow room in this Mississippi River city, according to the venue, gathering just hours after an estimated 6,000 people turned out to hear the Vermont senator about two hours away in Duluth.

The Sanders camp is determined to keep this battle going as long as possible, and the big crowds show he may be able to do that, though the question still remains whether he can seriously compete in the contests with the most diverse electorates.

Senior aides were reluctant to confront Mr. Trump through television ads, even after weeks of his belittling Mr. Cruz in widely covered speeches and TV appearances. But now they are moving to halt Mr. Trump’s momentum with the kind of everything-at-the-wall approach that suggests a campaign under duress: In less than two weeks, Mr. Cruz and his allies have assailed Mr. Trump as a lifelong liberal, a Twitter obsessive, an uninformed foreign policy mind and a “deal-maker” who would compromise on conservative values.

So sad. Sidling up to Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery and coming out flatly against legalization just isn’t getting it done for Cruz. What is this GOP primary coming to?

 * A BIG FIGHT OVER OBAMACARE: An interesting report from Politico’s Burgess Everett: The hard-fought New Hampshire Senate race is shaping up as a referendum on Obamacare, because GOP Senator Kelly Ayotte has repeatedly voted to repeal the law, while her challenger, Governor Maggie Hassan, decided to move forward with the Medicaid expansion in the state. She is challenging Ayotte on the question of whether the expansion should be reauthorized.

What’s interesting here is that unlike in the 2014 elections with their shriveled midterm electorates, Obamacare is now on the ballot in a swing state with a presidential year electorate.

* TRUMP GIVES MIDDLE FINGER TO FOX NEWS: Donald Trump will skip the debate set to air on Fox News tomorrow night, after getting angered over a statement from the network that mocked Trump’s desire to be treated fairly:

“Fox is playing games,” Trump said. “They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. Let them have the debate. Let’s see how they do with the ratings.”

It would be very amusing if the ratings did tank, wouldn’t it? Also, is it really wise for Fox to mock the notion that Trump must be treated fairly, given what he might do if he is not the nominee and decides he’s been treated unfairly?