Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

As we come down to the wire in Iowa, most of the reporting suggests Hillary Clinton may have a slight lead over Bernie Sanders. If she does win, it will probably offset any Sanders victory in New Hampshire, and Clinton may then pile up a string of decisive wins in more diverse states. Of course, Iowa could surprise us and Sanders could win, and we could be in for a very long battle ahead.

But whatever happens in Iowa, we can already reach this conclusion: Democrats, and Hillary Clinton, will have to engage in a serious, genuine effort to learn from the Sanders phenomenon and what it really represents.

NBC’s Kasie Hunt has a terrific segment this morning on the surprise success of Sanders’s campaign that should be a must-watch for all Democrats. It shows a range of pundits last spring mocking Sanders’s socialism, his “thick Brooklyn accent,” his age (“he looks 91”), and his manner (“he’s a loon”). But then Hunt’s segment smartly shows footage of the roaring crowds at Sanders rallies, and the deep passion and commitment of the young volunteers putting in long hours in a Sanders Iowa campaign office, concluding: “If Bernie Sanders is going to beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa, it’s because of volunteers like these, who basically live here.”

And then Hunt interviews Sanders himself, who says this: “Way back when, I don’t know if you heard it, I said: ‘Don’t underestimate me. Don’t underestimate me.'”

However easily Clinton wins the nomination, if she does win it, those two quotes should not be forgotten by Democrats. Or perhaps a variation on the second one is in order: going forward, don’t underestimate what Sanders represents. The Sanders phenomenon raises possible warning signs for Clinton’s chances in a general election. His ability to engage, excite and involve younger voters — his ability to make them feel invested in politics — throws into sharp relief Clinton’s relative failure, at least for now, to do the same. Some Dem pollsters, such as Stan Greenberg, have already begun warning that Clinton will have to make extra efforts to excite millennials.

Sanders has figured out a way to speak to a sense that the system is fundamentally broken in very profound ways that put our future in doubt. Those two things may be related: Sanders appears to make young voters feel they have a stake in his candidacy — and by extension, in this election — because they think their future is the one that’s in doubt. By speaking in bold strokes about the need for gargantuan solutions, he seems to makes their deep concerns about the future feel heard and, perhaps, assuaged. (While Donald Trump’s diagnosis of the problem is very different, leading him to wallow endlessly in demagoguery and xenophobia, he also has flummoxed pundits who under-appreciate his ability to speak effectively to a similar sense that people feel the system is fundamentally failing them.)

To be fair, the Clinton camp appears to know it has a problem with millennials. And given the demographics of the Democratic coalition, it obviously makes some sense for Clinton to promise to build on Obama’s accomplishments and to fault Sanders for implicitly criticizing the Obama era pace of change. I agree there are problems with Sanders’s argument. But at the same time, in stressing continuity and her own experience while attacking Sanders as naive about what’s politically possible, doesn’t she also risk squandering her own reformist credentials at a time of deep public pessimism about our system’s fundamentals? Is there a way to fuse these two arguments? Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg has suggested that Clinton, who has rolled out robust campaign finance and voting reform proposals, needs to get back to highlighting that agenda while linking it to an argument that only someone with her deep knowledge of the system can reform it in fundamental and profound ways from the inside.

One constant about Clinton’s career over the decades has been her resilience and ability to learn and adapt. So the question is, what lessons will Clinton learn from the Bernie phenomenon? If Sanders’s candidacy does fade, Dems will have to get serious about figuring out — and speaking to — what it is that makes those young volunteers willing to sleep on Sanders’s campaign couch.

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UPDATE: I should have added that multiple polls have shown younger voters prefer Sanders to Clinton. While that doesn’t prove she would not be able to excite and engage them as the nominee this fall, it does raise questions as to whether she’ll be able to.

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* REPUBLICANS FEAR TRUMP IS UNSTOPPABLE: Politico reports:

A wide range of senior Republicans told Politico that if Trump wins Iowa, he’ll more than likely be the nominee. One factor they repeatedly pointed to: An Iowa victory over Cruz would validate opinion polls showing him in command of the race. The Trump phenomenon would officially become a reality.

Indeed! And the polling averages show that Trump may be pulling away, though Iowa is always unpredictable.

* TRUMP-LESS DEBATE HAD LOWER RATINGS: CNN’s Brian Stelter looks at the ratings, and concludes that the Fox debate did significantly better than Trump’s alternate event did. But:

So whose show scored a bigger audience? Answer: Fox’s debate. But it was the second lowest rated debate of the season. So Trump is certain to take credit for hurting the channel’s total viewership.

Trump would never take credit for such a thing, would he?

* TRUMP STEALS GOP DEBATE THUNDER: This, from the New York Times write-up of Trump’s alternate event last night, is lots of fun:

Cable news networks offered saturation coverage, treating the arrival of Mr. Trump’s jet into the Des Moines airport with an avidity reserved for heads of state, an irresistible image opposite an empty debate stage. Graphics flashing across the screen documented the precise — but unbridgeable — distance between the two events. TV tickers breathlessly trumpeted his imminent arrival. “Awaiting Trump Event,” they blared.

It’s almost as if Trump knows how to manipulate network coverage to his advantage.

* GOP INSIDERS CERTAIN TRUMP COMMITTED GRAVE ERROR: Politico talks to a range of GOP insiders and party actors in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and discovers that three quarters of them think Trump made a big mistake in skipping last night’s debate. They described it as “petulant,” “narcissistic,” and “whiny.”

Of course, those Trumpian qualities have been rather prominently displayed for the last six months, and haven’t exactly hurt his standing. Indeed, GOP insiders have been steadily wrong about what will or won’t help Trump for just as long.

* TRUMP’S LATEST EXPLANATION FOR SKIPPING DEBATE: Last night, he explained his decision to skip the debate this way: “When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights. And that’s what our coun­try has to do.”

Trump has converted his snit into an opportunity to bond with his supporters’ aggrievement with what’s happened to them and their country. Clever! Surely they’ll eat it up.

* IS MEDIA HYPING BERNIE’S MOMENTUM? The Hill talks to Clinton supporters who make the case:

Left out of the media hype, they argue, is that Clinton already has more than half of all Democratic super-delegates — 359 of the 712 outstanding….According to the model put together by the Cook Political Report, Sanders would need to win 70 percent of the delegates in Iowa to be on track to match Clinton. That seems unlikely in a race that is headed down to the wire.

If you think the hype is bad now, imagine the roar of Hillary-is-doomed coverage that will be unleashed by even the most scant Bernie win in Iowa.

 * AND RUBIO KEEPS CLAIMING TO SPEAK FOR BENGHAZI FAMILIES: In Rubio’s big, big moment at last night’s debate, he said:

“Hillary Clinton lied to the families of those four brave Americans who lost their life in Benghazi. And anyone who lies to the families of Americans who have died in the service of this country can never be commander in chief of the United States.”

There were great roars of approval, but in fact, the families are split on what she said in private conversations with them, with some members actually saying Clinton did not blame the attacks on the video.