Why Ben Carson's rapid surge in the polls should have you very, very worried

Whether or not the Republican neurosurgeon has staying power, his popularity reveals much about the GOP psyche

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 2, 2015 8:54PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

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.

The PPP Poll had some very disturbing results in that regard:

Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.

Trump's beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That's less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.

Trump's supporters aren't alone in those attitudes though. Only among supporters of John Kasich (58/13), Jeb Bush (56/18), Chris Christie (59/33), and Marco Rubio (42/30) are there more people who think President Obama was born in the United States than that he wasn't. And when you look at whose supporters are more inclined to think that the President is a Christian than a Muslim the list shrinks to just Christie (55/29), Kasich (41/22), and Bush (29/22).

I think everyone is familiar with Trump's agenda. For starters he's going to round up and deport all the undocumented immigrants, build a wall on the border with a beautiful door and make Mexico pay for it, start trade wars with China and Japan, and when it comes to ISIS he has said:

"They have great money because they have oil. Every place where they have oil I would knock the hell out of them. I would knock out the source of their wealth, the primary sources of their wealth, which is oil. And in order to do that, you would have to put boots on the ground. I would knock the hell out of them but I'd put a ring around it and I'd take the oil for our country."

Carson's ideas are no less out in right field: He would use drones on the border to blow up caves where he believes immigrants are hiding. He believes that Planned Parenthood was created to commit genocide on African Americans. He has said that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen since slavery. And he believes that prohibitions against torture and war crimes are P.C. foolishness:

"Our military needs to know that they’re not going be prosecuted when they come back, because somebody has said, ‘You did something that was politically incorrect. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. We need to grow up, we need to mature. If you’re gonna have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says no war. Other than that, we have to win. Our life depends on it."

So, the two most popular candidates in the Republican race for president are as different as can be when in comes to personality and style. One is a monumental blowhard billionaire and the other is a diffident brain surgeon.  But it's not the way Trump and Carson speak or the style with which they present themselves that has the base so dazzled. These voters agree with the substance of what these two are saying. And they are both certifiable extremists. Maybe it's time for the political establishment to reconsider their view that this phenomenon doesn't amount to anything more than a political tantrum and take these people seriously.

Poll: Ben Carson Gaining Support After GOP Debate


By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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