When Donald Trump first announced his candidacy last June, Democrats were giddy. They watched with glee as he wreaked havoc on the Republican primary field; alienating immigrants, women, and Muslims; and derailing far more experienced GOP rivals in bellicose debate performances.
That was before Mr. Trump outlasted nearly everyone's expectations, topped nearly every national poll for more than six months, won three of the first four early voting contests so far, is poised to sweep most of the 12 Super Tuesday states, and has the clearest path to the Republican nomination of any candidate.
Now, for some Democrats, glee has turned to alarm.
“He’s formidable, he understands voters’ anxieties, and he will be ruthless against Hillary Clinton,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut told the New York Times. “I’ve gone from denial – ‘I can’t believe anyone would listen to this guy’ – to admiration, in the sense that he’s figured out how to capture everyone’s angst, to real worry."
In fact, signs suggest Democrats – like GOP party leaders – are panicking.
With good reason. A new national poll finds Trump has hit a new high with 40 percent support with Republican voters, another poll suggests his appeal is even broader than expected, and a Super Tuesday poll that suggests he would lose a hypothetical general election match-up against Mrs. Clinton or Bernie Sanders is probably overstated and riddled with caveats. In fact, Clinton holds only a 2.8-point advantage over Trump in the current Real Clear Politics average of polls, well within the margin of error.
There are openings Trump could capitalize on in a general election. Despite his divisive rhetoric against some groups, the tactical candidate is actually more moderate than most of his rivals on a number of issues such as the social safety net, taxes, campaign finance, gay rights, and other social issues. For example, he has said Planned Parenthood helps millions of women, a position that polling suggests echoes that of the general electorate.
And Clinton's weakness – white, male voters – is Trump's strength. In fact, a new survey suggests his call for a strong military and his businessman's approach to the economy holds crossover appeal for a surprising number of blue-collar Democrats.
In fact, the Clinton camp is terrified enough it's crafting a carefully-planned counter-offensive against Trump, according to a recent New York Times article.
The Clinton operation is "poring over polling data to understand the roots of Mr. Trump’s populist appeal and building up troves of opposition research on his business career," reports the Times.
It has cooked up a three-pronged attack: "Portray Mr. Trump as a heartless businessman who has worked against the interests of the working-class voters he now appeals to; broadcast the degrading comments he has made against women in order to sway suburban women, who have been reluctant to support Mrs. Clinton; and highlight his brash, explosive temper to show he is unsuited to be commander in chief."
That's why, during last week's GOP debate on Thursday, the Clinton campaign posted an image on Instagram that said, “These are not American values: Racism, sexism, bigotry, discrimination, inequality.”
It's also why Clinton has begun to talk about “love and kindness,” and say that "instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers."
To be sure, Democrats may be planning for a worst-case scenario. After all, Trump is incredibly divisive, has sky-high negative ratings, may indeed enjoy only limited appeal among Republicans, and could actually incite voters to turn out to vote against him in November.
But he's also exceeded all expectations thus far, has upended the race, and is rewriting the playbook, so Democrats aren't willing to leave things to chance.
Still, it's not at all clear that Democrats' plans will be successful.
“It’s very hard to counter someone who is in every single news cycle and who is always on offense in every single news cycle. Especially when they have no respect for boundaries that other candidates typically respect,” David Brock, who is at the nexus of several pro-Clinton super PACs, told MSNBC.
After all, Clinton is the ultimate insider in an outsider race, a career politician who excels at opining on 12-point policy solutions, while Trump hurls bite-size solutions to complex problems (Build a wall! Ban Muslims!), as media reports have pointed out.
“Can you imagine what he’ll do?” Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, asked the Times. She will bring up equal pay for women and abortion rights, Mr. Dowd said, “and he’ll turn to her and say, ‘You can’t even handle your stuff at home.’ ”
Six months ago, Trump upended the GOP while liberals looked on and laughed. Now he's poised to turn his offensive on the Democratic party, and it's possible Trump may have the last laugh.