The expectation that Republican voters would get tired of Donald Trump and start flirting with another fringe candidate---before giving in and voting for Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in the actual primary---has finally, just this week, started to bear fruit. Ben Carson, he of a soft voice and a love of comparing liberals to Nazis and slave owners, has been pulling ahead in the Iowa caucus polls recently. Tuesday morning, Carson edged Trump out in a nationwide poll of Republican voters.
To be clear, almost no experts believe for one second that Carson actually will win the nomination. As Jamelle Bouie lays out at Slate, there's a long tradition, dating back to 1988, of Bible-thumpers performing well in the Iowa Republican caucus, only to quickly lose in the follow-up primaries that are little less dominated by elderly fundamentalists. The best Carson can hope for is a win in Iowa followed by a trouncing in New Hampshire and South Carolina that leaves him conceding defeat fairly rapidly.
In fact, there's every reason to believe that this is what Carson is counting on. It's no secret that many of the "candidates" in the Republican presidential primary are not really running for office so much as they are exploiting the free airtime to build their brand. The end goal for many of these candidates is not the White House, but book sales, speaking fees, or maybe job offers from Fox News. In some cases, they may even go the Sarah Palin route, starting a PAC that fundraises on the claim that it's going to elect "real" conservatives to office, while mostly just being a way to funnel money to yourself and your buddies.
Ben Carson doesn't even try to hide that this is a big grift, taking a couple of weeks off from his "campaign" in order to promote his new book. As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel argued, the Republican primary is a lot like the plot of that Mel Brooks movie The Producers: It's more profitable to lose than to win. Losing means you get to spend the next few years of your life raking in millions by telling conservatives the country is under siege from sex-having women and rappers. Being president means you have to work a real job. That's why Republican debate stages should be regarded more like an American Idol for wingnut welfare than an actual political contest.
Sean Illing at Salon has noted that this inherent flavor-of-the-month nature of Carson's pseudo-campaign means that Donald Trump, who seemed to be a fake candidate but who lately seems like he might really go for it, shouldn't be sweating the Carson surge too hard:
Whatever the reason, Trump has real staying power – he’s proven that. Carson, however, remains a question mark. He may well win in Iowa, thanks to his support among evangelicals, but the GOP’s last two Iowa winners – Santorum and Huckabee – lost the nomination. Trump, moreover, is well-positioned in the other early primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he remains comfortably ahead of Carson.
But the issue isn't really whether or not Carson can beat Trump. He can't and he probably doesn't want to. The real question is whether Carson's going to be a spoiler, siphoning off enough of the wild-eyed wingnut vote from Trump that it allows someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio to step up to the plate.
On that front, Trump has real reason to worry. The entire argument for Trump is that, against all odds, Republican voters really like him. More than most candidates, he needs the perception of momentum going into the primaries. Trump's argument for himself is tautological: He's a winner because he's winning, so join the winning team. A couple of losses, however minor, to Ben Carson would put a serious damper on the Trump attempt to bulldoze his way into the nomination.
Carson has one thing that Trump doesn't: He is much more convincing when he declares that he's religious. You get the sense not only that he does go to church, but that religion is why he's abandoned all common sense and become the reactionary that he is. Trump, on the other hand, is really weak on this front. He has coasted along for awhile now claiming that he loves the Bible, but let's be serious. He probably can't find a copy in his house.
That hasn't hurt Trump too much so far. After all, most Christians don't know much about their own religion, so he's not all that different from the base on that front. But politics is an aspirational vocation, and his inability to look like the kind of Christian that the base voters would like to be could hurt him. Especially if you're comparing him to Carson, who speaks fundamentalism like it's his first language. Carson's presence will remind voters that they want a candidate who hits all the marks: Hard on immigrants but just as hard on gay people, willing to make snarky jokes about liking naked ladies but also eager to make sure that women who enjoy sex are punished for it. Trump simply isn't the whole package, something that might start to haunt voters as they get closer to the primary season.
Basically, if Carson is able to siphon off voters in early primaries, it will be a reminder that Trump isn't the whole package and that someone like Bush or Rubio does a better job of playing to the evangelicals. Either way, by robbing Trump of a landslide victory early on, Carson could help keep the more mainstream candidates viable. Carson isn't going to win this for himself, but he could play the role of the spoiler who hands it to a more mainstream candidate.