The last-minute polling suggests that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may well be favored to win Iowa (Clinton very narrowly so), which means the chatter may soon turn to the increasing possibility of a Trump-Clinton general election match-up.

Democrats are now beginning to seriously think through how they would go after Trump in the general election. The question is whether in so doing, they are sufficiently reckoning with what may really be driving the Trump phenomenon.

In November, a subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee paid the Brock-run American Bridge $144,000 for “research services,” according to elections filings. That research was devoted almost entirely to building a “Trump Book,” a compendium of clips and other records that could be used for future attacks, a campaign official familiar with the situation told POLITICO. In early December, the Clinton campaign paid the group another $22,000 for similar work, the official added, and another David Brock-affiliated group, Correct the Record, began a cursory vetting of Trump over the summer.
The emerging approach to defining Trump is an updated iteration of the “Bain Strategy” — the Obama 2012 campaign’s devastating attacks on Mitt Romney’s dealings with investment firm Bain Capital, according to a dozen Democratic operatives and campaign aides familiar with the accelerating planning inside Clinton’s orbit. This time, Democrats would highlight the impact of Trump’s four business bankruptcies – and his opposition to wage hikes at his casinos and residential properties — on the families of his workers.
…people close to Clinton think the key to beating the real estate mogul is to undermine his oft-repeated assertion that he is a great businessman….Those attacks would come in conjunction with a larger, more obvious push by Hispanic and women’s groups to re-broadcast Trump’s greatest, most offensive hits.

Targeting Trump’s business record and reminding Latinos and women of Trump’s nonstop wretchedness are obviously good enough ideas as far as it goes. But I’m hoping that Dems take more seriously the notion that Trump might be tapping into something very real with the larger argument he is making about our political system. Yes, there actually is an argument embedded in Trump’s seemingly nonsensical stream of insults, his ideas (such as they are) for mass deportations and building a wall on the southern border and forcing Mexico to pay for it, and his American greatness nationalism, his vow to “make America great again.”

As I’ve tried to argue, Trump is basically vowing to break the political system over his knee and get it working again. He is not claiming that “government is the problem.” Rather, he’s arguing that the stupid fools running the government are the problem, and that the bought-and-paid-for politicians and corrupt bureaucrats are the problem, because they are basically cheating you — they are not trying to make America work for you; instead they are making it work for the illegals and the major corporations and China.

Bernie Sanders has caught some elite Dems off guard by appealing to a sense that the system is fundamentally failing people. Sanders blames this on an oligarchic elite that has massively redistributed wealth upwards for decades and has paralyzed government from doing anything about it. Trump locates the problem in corrupt elites who are showing too much permissiveness and weakness towards a different cast of villains supposedly arrayed against the American worker. But they both speak to a sense that the system is broken on a very profound level. If this is right — if Trump’s success is rooted in his ability to convey that he understands this belief and is committed to doing something about it, despite his outsize flaws — then it’s unclear whether painting Trump as a con artist and a predatory capitalist would be enough, at least with a certain segment of voters.

Perhaps the focus should also be on how to position Clinton with regard to this deep voter disillusionment. In the general election, will Dems and Clinton figure out a way to more directly address it? Sanders’s primary success is arguably rooted in his ability to do this effectively. Of course, the general election is a different matter: If Clinton is the nominee, she’ll be able to use Trump’s own words and proposals to drive a big gap with women and Latinos. But what about blue collar whites in the Rust Belt? Noam Scheiber reports that some union leaders worry that Trump could actually appeal to some of these voters. I don’t know how real this will prove, and given the decline of swing voters and the increasing Dem reliance on its new, ascendant coalition, Trump’s appeal to non-college whites might not matter too much.

But it seems like a reasonable thing to start thinking about. Clinton has already rolled out robust campaign finance and voting reform proposals. There is probably some way for Clinton to get back to talking more about those things — back to talking about how she’ll use her experience and toughness to bust up the system and make it work — as a way to avoid getting perceived as a traditional politician and as part of the problem. And even if Trump fades, this will remain a key task for her.

The Politico report also notes that Trump’s appeal to the white working class has “unnerved” the Clintons, so surely Clintonworld is already thinking about these problems. And there is other evidence that it is looking at how to solve them, too. But that brings us to our next item.


* BILL MAKES THE CASE FOR HILLARY AS CHANGE-MAKER: The Clinton campaign issued a new video over the weekend featuring Bill Clinton making an expansive case that Hillary Clinton’s career shows this:

“She is the best qualified person for this moment in history that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve studied all of my predecessors….there’s a big difference in who can do, and who can’t. Here’s what I know about Hillary: She’s the single best change-maker I’ve ever met in my life. And we need a change-maker. Not a change-talker. A change-maker.”

So maybe this is one answer to the problem identified above — linking Clinton’s experience to her ability to produce change.

* THE FINAL FORECASTS AND POLLS: FiveThirtyEight’s final forecast give Donald Trump a 45 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses, to Ted Cruz’s 40 percent. It gives Hillary Clinton a 72 percent chance of winning, to Bernie Sanders’s 28 percent.

The HuffPollster polling averages put Trump over Cruz by 30-23, and have Clinton up over Sanders by 47-44.

* HILLARY STILL STRUGGLING WITH YOUNG VOTERS: The final Des Moines Register poll puts Clinton over Sanders by 48-45 among likely Iowa Dem caucus-goers. But she’s still trailing with younger voters. And:

Women older than 35 support Clinton, while women younger than 35 say they’re for Sanders, despite Clinton’s chance to make history and her efforts to court younger women, including through a series of pop-culture endorsements.

It’s another indication that whatever happens in Iowa, Clinton and Dems need to learn the real lessons of the Bernie phenomenon in preparation for the general.

* NO LATE SURGE FOR SANDERS? Nate Silver’s final analysis concludes that there may be “no late surge” for Sanders, and that his momentum may have “stalled right when it counts the most”:

What’s blunting Sanders’s progress? Actually, it might not have a lot to do with Sanders. Clinton isn’t an easy mark. She remains extremely popular with Democrats, including in Iowa, where her favorable rating was 81 percent in the Des Moines Register poll. (Sanders’s favorable rating was 82 percent in the same poll.) And Clinton has an impressive ground game in Iowa, where she has field offices throughout the state and voter outreach tactics modeled more on President Obama’s successful 2008 campaign than her own failed one.

Of course, Iowa is notoriously unpredictable, so…

 * TRUMP DOMINATING NEW HAMPSHIRE, IOWA: A new CNN/WMUR poll finds that Trump remains well ahead in New Hampshire: He’s backed by 30 percent of likely primary voters; Ted Cruz has 12 percent; Marco Rubio has 11 percent; and the others are in single digits.

The thing to watch here is whether Rubio might be able to come in a strong second place in the state. Meanwhile, with Trump also ahead in Iowa in the final Des Moines Register poll, he may actually be on track to winning both states.

* AND  EVANGELICALS SPLIT OVER TRUMP: NPR has a good report on how evangelical leaders are split over Donald Trump, with some (like Jerry Falwell, Jr.) backing the Donald and others expressing horror that evangelicals could actually support him. As Russell Moore puts it:

“You have someone who has reaffirmed that he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, for which he needs to seek forgiveness. Despite the fact that you have a train wreck of activity over many years, culminating in this presidential campaign. And there’s nothing but bragging and boasting about it.”

The Iowa outcome tonight will shed light on whether evangelicals actually can support this guy.