Even as Donald Trump continues to dominate the national polls, with the latest from PPP showing him holding on to a substantial national lead, another one of the Republican presidential candidates is finally starting to break away from the pack. And it’s not one of the mainstream political professionals, as everyone assumed it would be: Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, former Governor Jeb Bush are all mired in the single digits. Even Senator Ted Cruz, who is working the far right very hard, remains in the middle. No, the candidate who is suddenly nipping at Trump’s heels is the other non-politician in the race, Dr. Ben Carson. According to the same PPP poll, Trump is currently at 29 percent, with Carson the next most popular at 15 percent. And Carson has some very strong fundamentals:
Ben Carson is easily the most popular candidate in the field with a 68/14 favorability rating. The closest anyone else comes to that is Marco Rubio at 58/24. Carson is also the most frequent second choice of GOP voters at 13%. And he’s the only Republican who would win a head to head showdown with Trump, 49/43. Among candidates with meaningful support, only Mike Huckabee’s supporters would go to Trump in a head to head with Carson.
I wrote about Carson here last year, and noted his tremendous accomplishments as a pediatric neurosurgeon with a global reputation. Of the entire GOP field today — and it is a huge field — it’s fair to say that Ben Carson is the one candidate who has done something truly remarkable in his life prior to politics by dint of his own effort and extraordinary talent. (Yes Trump is a billionaire real estate mogul, but he was born into the business.)
There has been a lot of talk about why Trump is so popular, and the conventional wisdom at the moment is that it’s because voters are mad as hell and they are looking for an outsider to articulate their rage. Trump shakes his fist at the establishments of both parties and lays it all out on the line. This, it’s assumed, is the key to his success. Indeed, an entire beltway cottage industry has grown up around explaining the Trump phenomenon as an expression of America’s id.
Carson’s personality, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite of Trump’s. Where Trump is a bombastic narcissist, Carson is quiet and self-effacing. Where Trump rudely takes on all comers, Carson is polite and well-mannered. Trump is a street fighter, Carson a gentleman. So the fact that these two polar opposites are sitting at number one and two in the Republican primary polls right now must indicate that they represent two different strains in the GOP, right? If the histrionic Trump’s popularity is simply an inchoate expression of rage, then Carson’s support might be assumed to be based upon a yearning among other Republican voters for a more thoughtful, polite approach to politics.
But what if neither Trump nor Carson are popular because of their personalities? What if the beltway consensus that Trump’s success isn’t based upon issues or ideology is wrong and voters are actually attracted to his crazy ideas on the merits? The fact that Carson is closing on him certainly lends credibility to that possibility, because despite his mild-mannered persona, Carson’s ideas are even more extreme than Trump’s.
The two top contenders for the Republican nomination have nothing in common in terms of style, but among a very big field they are the two with the most radical agendas, and, as Salon’s Simon Maloy pointed out recently, a common disdain for what they term “political correctness.” As uncomfortable as it may be to think about, maybe Republican voters aren’t just looking for someone to express their rage. Maybe they really are extremists.