Sanders is no longer an underdog

The New York Times put together a compendium of quotes from a number of Democratic elected officials that are intended to frighten every registered Democrat voter to flee from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersVoter fraud allegations reignite squabble Mulvaney vows to give Trump straight talk on entitlements Senate confirms Trump's UN ambassador MORE (I-Vt.), immediately.

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Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillLobbying World Live coverage: Trump budget chief faces two Senate panels Washington Post reporter compares DC rioters to Boston Tea Party MORE from heartland Missouri said the following: "The Republicans won't touch him because they can't wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle." Not to be outdone, Gov. Jay Nixon, the two-term governor of Missouri, said there "would be a meltdown all the way down the ballot." And Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee assumed the role of political analyst with his all-encompassing summation of the Sanders electorate: Sanders as the nominee "wouldn’t be helpful outside Vermont, Massachusetts, Berkeley, Palo Alto and Ann Arbor."

You get the drift: These politicians all think Sanders would be an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party in a November general election. Visions of a modern-day George McGovern abound; McGovern, who in 1972 carried the grand total of two states (the District of Columbia and Massachusetts).

I remember 1972. At that time I was working for the centrist, very establishment and supposedly solid and sound Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. Muskie had been Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968. Although Humphrey had lost, Muskie came out well. Everything about him looked good and presidential. He was very tall, craggy-faced and serenely self-confident. Campaign aides were so sure of victory, they were picking out their West Wing offices.

But McGovern had an issue: the Vietnam War. That was more than enough. Young people and suburban liberals flocked to McGovern in droves. Muskie actually won the first primary with 47 percent of the vote, but that victory was considered "weak" and "not enough." By April, without any definite or enthusiastic constituency, Muskie was out. The front-runner had faded and failed.

But when the general election campaign began, McGovern the nominee became an extremely lonely figure. He was running far behind then-President Nixon and many elected Democrats refused to even appear on stage with him.

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump clamps down on federal agencies Mellman: First things first? Dems indignant as Comey keeps his job MORE's supporters and allies are now attempting to paint the same picture: You might like Sanders now, but if this self-proclaimed democratic socialist actually becomes the nominee of the party, he will not only get clobbered, but drag down the entire Democratic ticket. Do you want that to happen? You are being dreamy and idealistic; that's commendable, but totally unpractical and unrealistic.

Their message is: Wake up and face the facts. Sanders will not only lose and lose big, but any chance that the Democrats will regain the Senate (they need to pick up four seats) is out the window. Sanders is just plain unelectable.

This cry will become even louder if Sanders wins the first two contests (Iowa and New Hampshire).

At this moment, in one poll, he is nearly 30 percentage points ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire. I know that if this holds up, the Clinton forces will say that New Hampshire is a neighboring state of Sanders's Vermont and that independents can vote in the primary. (But to win, a candidate needs to do well with independents.)

Iowa, a caucus state, is perfect for a candidate like Sanders. So if Sanders starts with two big wins, Clinton must win big in Nevada and South Carolina. March 1 is being called the Southern Primary. That's supposed to be Clinton's firewall. African-Americans know her and like her and every day she is calling out President Obama's name and tying herself to it. She has a great many of the Democratic establishment superdelegates. Will these big shots stay loyal and stick with her if she starts losing?

Right now, both Sanders and Clinton are beating Republican front-runner Donald Trump in the polls. Sanders's lead is 15 points, while Clinton's is 10 points. But we are in January. Needless to say, anything and everything can change. The lay of the land today is that Clinton is running scared! Sanders, the most unlikely of candidates, has a following and money (he has more than a million small donors, who have not nearly maxed out). His supporters are committed and intense.

Clinton's supporters are less enthusiastic, but pragmatic. Will that be enough to get 2,300 delegates in Philadelphia in July? There are distinct and different political seasons. One is the nominating season. The other is the general election season. At present, Sanders seems to have the spirit and pizzazz. It's up to the Clinton campaign to stop the flow by winning down the road and letting the "realists" take over.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.