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Don't write Donald Trump's political obituary just yet: Why surging Ben Carson looks like a flavor of the month

Carson trumps The Donald in Iowa -- and maybe nationally now, too. But dig deeper, and Trump has more staying power


Sean Illing
October 27, 2015 6:26PM (UTC)

The tragicomedy that is the Republican presidential race took an interesting turn over the weekend. Ben Carson is now leading Donald Trump and Republican field in the latest CBS/New York Times poll. Carson takes 26 percent of the vote, while Trump earned 22 percent. Although Carson’s lead is within the margin of error, this is a significant shift in longstanding trends.

Trump has been the leader for several months now, but Carson appears to have broken through with key demographics, particularly evangelicals. The CBS report sums up Carson’s advantages well:

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Carson has made gains across many key Republican groups. In a reversal from earlier this month, he now ahead of Trump among women and is running neck and neck with him among men. Carson’s support among evangelicals has risen and he now leads Trump by more than 20 points with this group. Carson performs well among conservative Republicans and those who identify as Tea partiers.

It’s not terribly surprising that Carson leads Trump among women and evangelicals: Trump is the misogynist par excellence and Carson is a proud religious fanatic – these are natural demographics for Carson. But Carson’s rising support among men and Tea Partiers, relative to Trump, is somewhat surprising.

Tea Partiers don’t do policy. Their project is essentially negative, which is why the GOP’s nihilism and obstructionism began in earnest when Tea Partiers were elected to Congress in 2010. Neither Carson nor Trump have anything resembling a platform or a plan. They’re outsiders with no political experience who want to disrupt the status quo – that’s a message that resonates with conservative men and Tea Partiers.

If there’s a difference, it’s that Trump is louder and more aggressively obnoxious than Carson, which ought to endear him to these demographics. Evidently, though, Carson’s unhinged nice guy routine is working. His new campaign ad perfectly illustrates both his appeal and his vacuousness.

In a 30-second TV spot, Carson manages to hit all the right conservative notes without coming close to explaining what he’s going to do. “I’m Ben Carson and I’m running for president,” he says. “The political class and their pundit buddies say: ‘Impossible. He’s too outside the box.’ Well, they do know impossible. Impossible to balance the budget, impossible to get border security, impossible to put aside partisanship…I’m Ben Carson, I’m running for president, and I’m very much outside the box.”

If you’re waiting for the part where he says how he’s going to balance the budget or get border security or put aside partisanship, you don’t know Ben Carson or the new GOP. Carson is basically doing the same thing as Trump: bashing the “political class” and promising to fix everything that’s broken – only Carson does so with a lukewarm smile whereas Trump pounds his fist on the table with Tri-State bravado. It doesn’t matter that neither candidate has a discernible plan to accomplish any of these things – the empty rhetoric is more than enough for Republican voters.

One of the more interesting findings in the new CBS/NYT poll is that 55 percent of Trump backers say their support is firm, while 80 percent of Carson supporters say they could change their minds. This is good news for Trump; it suggests Carson is far more of a flavor of the month candidate than Trump.

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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.

Carson’s boost in the polls will be a boon to his campaign, but his long-term viability is still debatable. If this trend continues for another month or two, however, Trump might be in real trouble.


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Elections 2016 Republican Primary Ben Carson Donald Trump Polls

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