Famed pediatric neurosurgeon and crackpot pyramids theory enthusiast Ben Carson is now challenging Donald Trump for frontrunner status in the race for the Republican nomination for president. As mentioned previously, this new development could really complicate Trump’s core message, which seems to be that he’s a winner and winner’s win so vote for him if you want to win and be a winner. It might be difficult for Trump to overcome any stench of loserdom.
Two months ago, Trump had double Carson’s support. Actually, Trump’s numbers are only down slightly from then. So Carson is gaining support but so far not at Trump’s expense.
Ed Kilgore, in his weekly column at Talking Points Memo, explains why Carson could have more staying power than previous candidates who seemed to be running for president in order to promote their personal brands. Carson is spending his impressive amount of funds in exactly the ways you’d expect a grifter to spend them. The differences between Carson and his 2012 versions, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, are that Carson may have a broader base of support and he does not reek of failure and personal scandal (though as Kilgore notes, Carson’s connection to a shady nutritional supplements firm could snowball if it’s truly bad or not handled well).
It’s not clear if Carson’s surge is a significant development or not. What’s clear, though, is that the Republican establishment’s preferred candidates are still stuck in the mud. If anything, they are in worse position than they were two months ago.
(So we’re clear on our terms, the ‘Republican establishment’ refers to the Republican National Committee, Republican officials who mostly care about winning elections in order to keep taxes low and regulations limited, and their donors. Any candidate likely to get killed in a general election, like Trump, Carson, or Ted Cruz, make the main goals of low taxes and limited regulations less achievable, and are therefore anametha to establishment figures.)
FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver tries to understand what’s going on and finds that the Republican Party might really be in disarray, making previously thought impossible outcomes, like the nomination of a Trump or a Carson, possible. Among Silver’s many interesting insights is this one: Republicans in Congress, one of the three main pillars of the GOP establishment, have been extremely, and historically, hesitant and slow in bestowing endorsements on the candidates for president this cycle. If the Party establishment is not deciding, as it did with George Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012, then the ‘Invisible Primary’ theory of how a party’s establishment chooses the candidate may not adequately explain the Republican contest.
Knowing all the usual caveats about polling this far out from the actual contests, a look at the polling averages compiled by RealClear Politics shows just how dire the situation is at the moment for establishment candidates:
- Non-establishment candidates (Carson, Trump, Cruz, and Mike Huckabee) combine for 60.8% support nationally, 62.9% in Iowa, 48.5% in New Hampshire (Carson, Cruz, and Huckabee’s religion on their sleeves schticks don’t play as well in New England) and 62.3% in South Carolina (the third state to hold nominating contests).
- Establishment “frontrunner” Marco Rubio has enjoyed a 2% “surge” in the wake of the last Republican debate, but that still puts him at only 11% nationally (good for third place), 12% in Iowa (fourth place), 10.3% in New Hampshire (third place), and 8.3% in South Carolina (third place).
- Nationally, establishment candidates (Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie) register a robust 25.6% combined.
When your current hope, Rubio, is a guy that 89 out of 100 Republican voters don’t want to vote for, you’re in trouble. This can still turn around, but analysts are starting to sound like broken records: yes, they say, the Republican base is flirting with crazy, unelectable candidates, but they always do that, and they’ll come around and hold their nose and pull the lever for Rubio or Bush by March 2016. Silver’s point is that something could really be different this time around.
Another interesting consideration here is a dirty secret of Republican presidential politics: liberal states that send zero or few Republicans to Congress or rarely vote for Republicans for president anymore hold a lot of power in the nominating contest. Many Republican voters in these states, still attached to the party and pining for the long gone days of the moderate northeastern Republican, want to make sure the Republican nominee is a person that can win the general election. This voter wants a nominee that he or she knows will never win in Massachusetts, but might be able to win one of the swing states, like Florida, that the Republican party needs in order to win the general election. Establishment types are hoping that liberal states will perform their role as firewall against the candidacies of Carson, Trump, and Cruz. We’ll see.
Frankly, I hope they nominate Carson (or Trump or Cruz, for that matter). The country needs to see clearly the beast that the Republican Party has become. What better way than to nominate a crazy guy who is crazy.