Bernie Sanders hobnobs with Al Sharpton (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

THE MORNING PLUM:

There is very little doubt that Bernie Sanders will scale Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” of minority voters by making some inroads into her support among them. The only question is how high he’ll get, and for a sense of how he’s doing on that score, one key thing to watch will be how Sanders performs among young nonwhite voters.

With the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary looming, the Clinton and Sanders campaign are settling in for a long, brutal battle for nonwhite voters, and the Clinton camp is eying these contests and a string of primaries across the south as a firewall of sorts. The Post account of the state of play contains this important nugget, noting that the Sanders campaign claims its internal polling shows young nonwhite voters moving towards him:

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, said that internal polling is starting to show movement in Sanders’s direction among younger voters of all backgrounds in upcoming states.

“Younger voters are clearly the strongest group for Senator Sanders, and this is sort of reminiscent of the Obama campaign — where younger voters were the president’s strongest bloc as well — across racial lines,” Weaver said.

You should be skeptical of such leaks of internal polling, of course; I’m merely planting a flag on this as something to watch. The Sanders campaign’s basic premise is that his message of tackling inequality and economic injustice — combined with his past participation in the civil rights movement — will allow him to make a powerful case to nonwhite voters, particularly younger ones.

The Democratic state chair in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, tells NPR that Sanders’s ability to increase his support among black voters in the state may hinge in part on whether he can do what Barack Obama did in 2008: Get young African Americans on his side, and get them to persuade their older relatives to do the same. That’s because black women who are a bit older — say, 35-60 — may be pivotal to the outcome, and Sanders might be able to reach them through younger voters, Harrison says: “Sanders has to figure out how do you communicate and talk to those folks.”

Interestingly, some Clinton supporters appear focused on the possibility that Sanders could find inroads into Clinton’s support via this route. Her high profile African American backers are already beginning to focus their argument on younger black voters, by making the case that as seductive as Sanders’s big ideas may be, they are unrealistic, and by arguing that younger voters need to focus on whether Sanders can win a general election. That suggests a measure of worry, or at least vigilance.

On the other hand, Goldie Taylor has a very good piece today explaining why “Clinton’s enormous support among black voters does not appear to be in jeopardy.” Taylor reports that the Clinton campaign is aggressively pursuing a strategy that depends in part on the support of influential black pastors, an approach Bill Clinton relied on in 1992. On this score, it’s worth noting that some African American leaders are talking up the Clintons’ deep roots in the black community. But the Bill Clinton presidency ended 16 years ago, so this historical resonance might be lost on younger nonwhite voters, as it may be on other younger voters, as well.

At any rate, if Sanders is going to breach Clinton’s firewall — which still seems unlikely, but at least possible — this is one way it might happen.

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* GOP HAS NO PLAN TO STOP TRUMP: Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur reports that Republicans are descending on South Carolina with no idea how to stop Trump. The “establishment lane” politicians are battling each other, so there’s no obvious non-Trump candidate from the “left”:

Bush, Rubio, and Kasich are competing to become the establishment favorite to take on Trump ahead of the Feb. 20 primary in South Carolina. “If those three get into a circular firing squad, the one who benefits is Trump,” said David Winston, a Republican consultant who worked on Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.

That leaves Ted Cruz as the most likely candidate to block Trump. Of course, GOP establishment figures loathe Cruz even more than they dislike the Donald. Tough situation!

* RUBIO CAMP WARNS OF BROKERED CONVENTION: The Associated Press reports that after Rubio’s disastrous performance in New Hampshire, Rubio’s campaign manager is now warning that the GOP nomination battle may result in a brokered convention:

The public embrace of a possible brokered convention marks a sharp shift in rhetoric from Rubio’s top adviser that could be designed to raise alarm bells among Republican officials. Yet days after a disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire and looking up at Donald Trump in next-up South Carolina, Rubio’s presidential ambitions are truly facing growing odds.

This seems designed to get GOP establishment figures to pressure Bush and Kasich to step aside, smoothing the path for Rubio as the preferred alternative to Trump and Cruz. Nice try!

 * TED CRUZ PLAYS LONG GAME AGAINST RUBIO: CNN gets inside the long term strategy of Ted Cruz’s campaign, which turns on the expectation of a long battle against Rubio:

Cruz’s orbit is eyeing an eventual three-man race between the Texas senator, Donald Trump and Rubio that shows no signs of consolidating quickly, according to conversations with nearly a dozen people tied to the campaign….Top Cruz allies and donors stress that their main objective is turning the GOP race into a one-on-one battle with Trump.

One of the big goals here is to scoop up the fundraisers that may be liberated if Jeb and Kasich ultimately get pushed out. Watch for a brutal Cruz-Rubio battle for their support.

* BLACK LAWMAKERS TO BACK HILLARY: The Congressional Black Caucus will endorse Hillary Clinton, and Paul Kane reports that some want to testify to Clinton’s accomplishments and stress her electability in the eyes of young voters. CBS chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield:

“They need to understand that when a candidate presents a message, you’ve got to pierce the message to determine whether or not it’s realistic, given the political climate that we live in. It’s not a negative, it’s not an aspersion on the new voter. It’s the fact that many of them are inexperienced and have not gone through a presidential election cycle before.”

Key question: Given Clinton’s high support among African Americans and Sanders’s success with young voters, which candidate will young black voters gravitate towards?

* ONE KEY LAWMAKER TO WATCH: South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn tells USA Today in an interview that he may endorse one of the presidential candidates, after remaining neutral in the 2008 primary. Two notable nuggets: Clyburn says that both Clintons’ deep roots in the black community “matter,” and he recalls the bloodbath that George McGovern suffered in 1972 after inspiring Democrats with his message.

A Clyburn endorsement of Hillary Clinton would help her post a big win, which she needs to arrest the Sander surge. But Clyburn still says he’s undecided.

* ON SANDERS’S CLAIM HE DOESN’T HAVE A SUPER PAC: Glenn Kessler takes a close look at Sanders’s frequent claim that he doesn’t have a Super PAC, meaning he’s independent of big money influence in a way Clinton isn’t, and concludes:

There have been three unaffiliated super PACs supporting Sanders. One of them has spent $1.2 million campaigning for the candidate so far, accounting for the majority of outside group spending for Sanders so far. Meanwhile, 14 groups total spent $1.7 million campaigning for Clinton so far. Sanders has not exploited the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but is still reaping its benefits.

Sanders’s claim gets One Pinocchio. Still, his set-up is just not comparable to how the pro-Hillary forces are operating.

* AND DEMOCRATS FRET ABOUT HILLARY: Politico talks to a number of Democratic insiders and finds an atmosphere of anxiety and surprise, but not full-blown panic:

Interviews with close to twenty donors, superdelegates, elected officials and strategists revealed that many were caught off guard by the scope of Clinton’s defeat Tuesday….their patience was worn thin by the Iowa and New Hampshire results, leading many to point to the Nevada and South Carolina contests as absolute must-wins for Clinton — and must-win-comfortably — if she hopes to avert a full-on stampede of second-guessing and Joe Biden- and Elizabeth Warren-envy.

Sure, Clinton has a real race on her hands. But remember: if Democrats weren’t wringing their hands, they wouldn’t be Democrats.