ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Political punditry is, at best, a risky business. But rarely has conventional wisdom looked less wise than in this year's presidential primary campaigns. The supposed shoe-ins are struggling. The outsiders are ascendant. Hardly anyone saw this coming, not even our own national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi. Welcome back.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And let's face it. You're wrong.
LIASSON: I was wrong. You are right. I was wrong. I actually said on the air that I thought Donald Trump's best day would be his first day, and I was wrong. And a lot of people who predicted that he would've flamed out by now were also wrong. It doesn't seem to matter who he insults - Hispanics, John McCain, Megyn Kelly. He keeps on going up in the polls. And as a matter of fact, we have two new polls in Iowa that show Donald Trump in the number one spot.
And it's not just Trump. It's other outsiders, nonpoliticians. Ben Carson is tied with him in the one of those polls and close behind him in another one. And on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is closing the gap with Hillary. He's now only behind her in Iowa by only seven points.
SIEGEL: So why is this happening? How do you explain this moment?
LIASSON: Well, we're going through a very anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-politician moment. It doesn't seem like it's going to end anytime soon. This doesn't mean that Trump or Carson or Bernie Sanders are going to be the nominee, but when you have a period of prolonged middle-class stagnation and gridlock in Washington and a world on fire where it doesn't seem that American power can do anything about it, you get a lot of political volatility. And as one Democratic member of Congress said to me, Trump and Sanders are two big middle fingers pointed at Washington. And you know, to some extent, you can see Carson and the other non-politician in the race, Carly Fiorina, benefiting from this mood, too.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about Trump, Mara. Do you think it's style or substance that's helping him break through?
LIASSON: I think it's both. Immigration is where both of those things come together. And Trump put up an Instagram video today, where he used Jeb Bush's words against him. Let's take a little listen to that ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEB BUSH: Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's kind of an - it's an act of love.
LIASSON: So over the scary music, what you're seeing are Willie Horton-style mugshots of illegal immigrants who committed violent crimes and then a big, Trump-sized tabloid-font headline that says love - forget love; it's time to get tough. So Donald Trump really is the id of the Republican Party. He says the things that Republicans feel. And in this case, being weak on immigration or hospitable to immigrants means you're a wimp. And, you know, Bill Clinton was fond of saying voters will choose strong and wrong over weak and right every time. And I think that explains a lot of what's happening with Donald Trump.
SIEGEL: Well, speaking of the Clintons, Mara, the State Department is releasing another batch of emails former secretary of state Clinton sent from her private server. Do you think that story is contributing to the anti-politician mood right now?
LIASSON: I think it's certainly part of - not all of - but part of the reason why she is having trouble and slipping in the polls. A-hundred-and-fifty of these emails, by the way, were classified retroactively. But I do think that the drip, drip, drip of the State Department releases a little bit at a time is keeping this story alive. And a lot of Democrats feel that it prolongs the impression that Hillary Clinton doesn't think she's like other people and should be held to the same rules and she hasn't done enough to put the story away. But there are a lot of people who see similarities between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the two establishment candidates with the most money, the most establishment support. And in different degrees, they are both struggling to connect in this era of virulent anti-establishment, anti-politics politics.
SIEGEL: But in different degrees...
LIASSON: Yes, in different degrees.
SIEGEL: ...Hillary Clinton struggling is still leading.
LIASSON: That's right. She's still leading.
SIEGEL: Jeb Bush can't seem to get - remain over 10 percent, in double-digit figures...
LIASSON: Certainly not in Iowa.
SIEGEL: Not in Iowa.
LIASSON: Certainly not in Iowa. Nationally, he will, but in Iowa, which has always been a tough place for Bushes, he's having trouble. Hillary Clinton's perch, I think, as the frontrunner has not been shaken. But she's having trouble connecting. Otherwise, Bernie Sanders wouldn't have been surging like he is.
SIEGEL: OK, Mara. That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.