Many pundits once said Donald Trump never had a chance. But despite the Republican frontrunner's politically incorrect comments on Mexicans, Muslims and his closest rivals, his popularity is soaring. (Reuters)

THE MORNING PLUM:

All signs are that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are headed for smashing victories today in multiple primaries across the country that could very well put both on a clear path to the nominations of their respective parties. Which means it isn’t too early for Democrats to start seriously pondering how to handle Trump in the general election.

Today’s New York Times delivers the most comprehensive report yet on the evolving Dem strategy. It’s worth dividing the Dem approach into two categories: First, there are the attacks that are designed to tear Trump down in the eyes of core Dem constituencies (minorities, single women) and groups of gettable swing voters (suburbanites and college educated whites). This will rely heavily on attacking Trump’s temperament as unfit for the presidency and deeply dangerous on a global scale; highlighting Trump’s virulent xenophobia and degrading comments about immigrants, women, and Muslims; and his murky business dealings, which will be pressed into service to paint Trump as a scam artist who has fleeced working people.

You might call those the low-hanging-fruit attacks on Trump — the gimmes. After all, it’s easy to conclude Trump is a deeply toxic figure who would drive up turnout among core Dem groups in a huge way and dramatically alienate and frighten certain swing voters. That’s very likely to happen.

The second aspect of the thinking about Trump is, to my mind, more interesting and potentially very important. It is rooted in an effort to understand the actual sources of Trump’s appeal, which he has retained in spite of all of his visibly despicable character traits:

[Campaign manager Robby] Mook and his colleagues regard Mr. Trump as a wily, determined and indefatigable opponent who seems to be speaking to broad economic anxieties among Americans and to the widely held belief that traditional politicians are incapable of addressing those problems. Publicly, the Clinton operation is letting the Republicans slug it out. But privately, it and other Democrats are poring over polling data to understand the roots of Mr. Trump’s populist appeal….

Mrs. Clinton’s uneven performance with male voters so far, especially white men, could create an opening for Mr. Trump to attract Democrats and independents who are socially and culturally moderate and open to his call for a strong military, fearless foreign policy and businessman’s approach to the economy. Those voters could give him an edge in places like North Carolina, which Mr. Obama won in 2008. But Clinton advisers also worry about Ohio, Florida and Democratic-leaning states in presidential elections that Mr. Trump has vowed to contest, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

This is welcome news for those who don’t relish the idea of a Trump presidency. Initial reports suggested that Democrats were mostly planning to re-purpose the 2012 attacks on Mitt Romney, as a predatory capitalist, against Trump. But such an attack arguably would not be reckoning with the important differences between Romney and Trump, as well as the true sources of Trumpism’s success. Romney was running (mostly) as an economic technocrat who would spur a faster recovery where Obama failed, in hopes of winning a referendum on the incumbent’s sluggish economy. So Dems had to use Romney’s business career to viscerally undermine the notion that his approach to the economy — a call for “getting government out of the way” that Dems branded as “you’re on your own economics” — would actually help struggling Americans.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton turned her focus toward Republicans Feb. 29, criticizing their in-fighting ahead of Super Tuesday. (Reuters)

Trump is making a very different kind of appeal. He is not arguing that the way to help struggling Americans is to get government out of the way; it’s to get stupid, corrupt, and/or weak elites out of the way. He is not an economic technocrat. He’s an economic bull-in-the-China-shop who knows the elites’ scam from the inside and is here to bust up their party. Judging by the months of polling and voter interviews we’ve seen, he appears to be connecting with a sense among many people that the system is cheating ordinary people on a profound level — on behalf of illegal immigrants, multinational corporations, China, and Mexico (the “new China) — and that he’d set all this right with smarts and, above all, strength. Trump relentlessly repeats two phrases: “Politicians are all talk and no action,” and “we’re going to make America great again.” In this telling, Hillary Clinton — another establishment politician who takes lots of Wall Street money and is openly sounding defeatist tones about the limits of the possible — would simply be cast as part of the problem.

Judging by the New York Times’s reporting, Democrats get this and are starting to think seriously about how to counter it. Obviously Trump would start out at a tremendous demographic disadvantage, and it’s very possible that even if Trump did win over a lot of blue collar whites, he’d still get swamped by the Democrats’ advantage among their core constituencies, who might be inspired by Trump to turn out in astronomical numbers. A Trump nomination would also encourage Dems to redouble their focus on Rust Belt swing states, which are probably Trump’s best hope for surprise inroads, with the result that Trump could end up facing an insurmountable electoral college map, as well. Still, it’s good to see Dems operating from the premise that a cakewalk defeat of Trump is anything but a certainty, particularly in a year as strange as this one.

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* THE FINAL FORECASTS, GOP SIDE: FiveThirtyEight gives Donald Trump a greater than 90 percent chance of winning in Massachusetts, Alabama and Tennessee; a great than 80 percent chance of winning in Georgia; a 70 percent chance in Virginia and Oklahoma; and a 52 percent chance in Arkansas. Cruz has an 88 percent chance of winning in Texas.

Key question: even if Rubio doesn’t win one state, can he still perform at least well enough in numerous states to retain the possibility of catching up with Trump in the delegate count in the winner-take-all March 15th states?

* THE FINAL FORECASTS, DEM SIDE: FiveThirtyEight gives Hillary Clinton a greater than 90 percent chance of winning in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Massachusetts. Sanders has a greater than 99 percent in Vermont and a 51 percent chance in Oklahoma.

Key question: Can Sanders manage big enough wins in places like Minnesota (FiveThirtyEight doesn’t have odds on that race) or Massachusetts (where he looks to be losing), to offset what could end up being a quasi-insurmountable Clinton delegate haul?

* KEEP AN EYE ON TEXAS: The HuffPollster polling averages show Cruz leading Trump in Texas by 36-30, with Rubio a distant third at 17 percent. The key here is that, if Cruz does win, he may stay in the race, complicating Rubio’s efforts to emerge as the lead non-Trump alternative before March 15th.

Also: If Rubio pulls less than 20 percent in the Texas primary, he falls short of the delegate threshold in the most delegate rich state.

* TRUMP HITS A NEW HIGH IN ANOTHER POLL: The new NBC News/Survey Monkey Tracking Poll finds Trump has hit a new high among Republicans nationwide: he has 40 percent, to 21 percent for Rubio, and 18 percent for Cruz.

Rubio’s support increased five points, suggesting that his new strategy of being tough and feisty with Trump may be working. But Trump increased four points, and he has nearly double the support of Rubio, so…

* TRUMP BEATS RUBIO AND CRUZ IN HEAD-TO-HEAD MATCH-UPS: The latest NBC/Survey Monkey poll also finds that Trump beats Rubio in a one-on-one match-up by 52-46. He beats Cruz by 55-42. Note: Trump beats both of them among both self-described “moderate” and “conservative” voters, once again suggesting Trump’s appeal is a lot broader than expected.

The Rubio campaign’s premise is that clearing the field will enable him to stop Trump, but it’s unclear why we should assume that he would inherit all or even most of Cruz’s (and John Kasich’s and Ben Carson’s) supporters.

* WHAT A BIG TRUMP WIN WILL LOOK LIKE: The New York Times spells it out:

Super Tuesday offers Mr. Trump an opportunity to send a resounding message about the depth and breadth of his support….Mr. Trump has begun to render obsolete the defining divisions of region, religion and ideology that have characterized recent Republican presidential primaries. If he can do so on a wider map — winning evangelical conservatives in the rural South and secular moderates in the urban Northeast — he will demonstrate that he is leading a realignment and creating something new: a Trump coalition.

And so, if Trump can show very broad ideological and geographic appeal, it will become harder for Rubio to argue that he can beat Trump in winner-take-all March 15th states like Ohio and Florida.

* AND THE STOP-TRUMP EFFORTS GEAR UP: The Post reports that a major new ad campaign is set to launch, featuring Trump University, which is being targeted by lawsuits for fraud:

The ad, titled “Scam,” is the latest component of the stop-Trump campaign of Our Principles PAC, a conservative group funded in part by Marlene Ricketts, a major Republican donor and the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts….It will air nationally on the CNN and Fox News Channel cable channels and at a higher volume in states holding primaries in March 15, including Florida, where home-state Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to cut into Trump’s polling lead.

Because ads funded by elite Republican donors should do wonders to stop the guy who is running as the scourge of elite Republican donors…