When Donald Trump insulted John McCain’s military service with the atrociously offensive statement “I like people who weren’t captured,” almost the entire chorus of establishment media pundits and political professionals declared Trump’s candidacy over.
But while his poll numbers took a small hit, Trump continues to lead the Republican field, nor is there any particular reason to believe that his comments about McCain will harm him in the future.
The interesting question is why there is such a disconnect between the establishment pundit class and average American voters. There are many reasons for this, the most compelling of which are discussed by Chris Hayes in his tremendous book Twilight of the Elites: the professional political class lives in same socially rarefied air as America’s business and other elites, culturally and economically separated by a widening gulf of inequality and disconnection that prevents them from grasping at an emotional, fundamental level the challenges faced by normal families. It is this disconnect that allowed Mitt Romney to treat the awful, uniquely American experience of being forced by price gouging from one rapacious health insurance corporation to another as “firing people who provide services to him.” Because in his world (and that of most of the political elite), that’s what it is.
The professional political class tends to believe that there is a mythical American “centrist/moderate” voter who loves John McCain and Joe Lieberman because they are serious, respectable moderates who “get things done.” The fact that the centrist voter is largely a myth doesn’t dawn on them, because they spend more time misreading poll results than they do actually talking to average voters. (Hint: lumping progressive and conservative voters who call themselves “independent” together into a single voting bloc and then marveling at their seemingly moderate collective policy choices isn’t terribly smart statistical analysis.) In a Washington DC where John McCain is a permanent fixture of the talk show circuit, McCain is the “maverick” and bellwether of serious opinion. In the real world, John McCain is just another extremist Republican to Democrats, and a despised establishmentarian to the Republican base.
In the elite pundit world, voters are fairly happy with American society generally but unhappy with Washington specifically because of an “extremist” environment where no one cooperates to pass respectable centrist legislation. But in the real world, voters understand that the middle class is coming apart at the seams–which leads more knowledgeable left-leaning voters to support economic populist approaches to reduce inequality and hold corporations accountable, and that leads less educated, more racist and reactionary conservative voters to try to restrict immigration from allowing others to take “their” jobs.
Bernie Sanders’ growing momentum is due to his unflinching left-populist appeal; if Hillary Clinton holds onto her lead it will be because she assured the Democratic base that she agrees with him enough to allay their concerns about her pro-corporate past. And for his part, Donald Trump won’t be hurt by attacking John McCain. He understands where the Republican base really is at a fundamental level.
Most of the professional pundit class doesn’t fully comprehend either phenomenon or the true feelings of American voters, and it shows in their failed predictions.