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Eye On Candidates
September 1, 2015

Can Trump’s Fellow Outsiders Top Him?

Businessman Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the polls is surprising to many, but there is recent precedent for an outsider to take the early lead well before the first caucus or primary. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain led the Republican field for most of October 2011 and held that lead through early November before fading and ultimately dropping out. History suggests there is an interest among Republicans in supporting a nontraditional candidate without the normal experience of being a member of Congress, governor or vice president.

But Cain was the only nontraditional candidate in 2012, while this cycle’s contest features three: Trump, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Could one of those two seize the mantle from Trump of being the top nontraditional candidate?

Yesterday’s poll from Iowa that shows Carson tying Trump in the leadoff state suggests he may have an opportunity to do so. From Politico:

Carson ties Trump at the top in Iowa poll

Ben Carson and Donald Trump are tied at the top of the Republican field in a new survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers with 23 percent each, according to the results of a Monmouth University poll released Monday.

The good news continues for the retired neurosurgeon with his favorability ratings, as 81 percent said they view him favorably, compared with just 6 percent who do not. And Trump's favorability went up as well, at 52 percent to 33 percent, up from 47 percent and 35 percent, respectively, last month.

Carson has steadily gained support over the summer despite keeping a relatively low profile, especially compared with Trump. But Carson, who has never held political office, has similarly tapped into a strong anti-Washington sentiment among voters.

The same poll shows Fiorina surging to third place in Iowa with 10 percent, just ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while former Iowa frontrunner Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has faded to fifth place with 7 percent. Other recent polls also have shown Carson and Fiorina rising in recent weeks.

While Carson seems to have tapped into the desire of some Republicans to find a nontraditional candidate, he’s taken a different path to finding his supporters. Caitlin Huey-Burns of Real Clear Politics writes about how Carson is appealing to voters:

Republican primary voters spent the summer applauding the loud, flashy, brash Donald Trump. But slightly below the radar, the calm, mild-mannered retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was steadily securing ground behind the real estate mogul….

“I call it the power of nice,” says Rob Taylor, an Iowa state representative co-chairing Carson’s Hawkeye State campaign. “When you compare the two [Trump and Carson], it’s kind of a yin and yang. Carson’s approach is kind, gentle, smart and effective, and what he’s practicing right now, we haven’t seen in a long time in politics.”

Polls bear that out: Carson’s favorability rating is the highest in the field in Iowa.

Huey-Burns points to Carson’s background and how it complements his style:

Part of Carson’s pitch as a non-politician is that he has done what no candidate in the field is capable of doing: fixing real problems that had never been solved before. His chief example is being the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head. Of course, this is a unique skill set and not a requisite to politics and governing. But Carson believes it’s applicable.

Carson’s unique background works to his advantage in this age of political outsiders. While Iowa has been no stranger to such outsiders (think Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, among others), they often burn out. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain led the polls in the beginning, for example, only to later fall from grace. This time, some activists say, is different.

“This time, I think the polls have best captured what I’m seeing on the ground: that the anger at the Republican Party is not just anger; it is a divorce decree,” says Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa radio host backing Ted Cruz.

Over at Bloomberg View, Jonathan Bernstein suggests Carson may be the outsider to topple Trump:

[W]hat today's survey may forecast is that Carson will get some media attention. If he does, he'll also likely get a more pronounced polling surge, possibly into first place.

Remember, what's keeping Trump on top now appears to be almost entirely the huge media attention, as John Sides said at the Monkey Cage on Friday. After all, most voters won't make serious decisions about which candidate to support until after New Year's Day in Iowa and New Hampshire, and later everywhere else. Yet plenty of people are willing to answer a pollster's question even if they haven't made a real choice. 

One way Trump will lose altitude will be when other candidates are in the news. Enter Carson. 

Carson is joined by Fiorina as a potential challenger to Trump’s current claim as the leading nontraditional candidate, and the combined support of the three in the Iowa poll is 56 percent. That’s somewhat higher than the current Real Clear Politics poll average of 44, but either number shows a tremendous amount of support for candidates that have never taken any oath of office.

Fiorina’s performance and rise in the polls has impressed many observers, but it still may not be enough to get her into the main CNN debate later this month. Although currently at seventh place in the Real Clear Politics poll average, CNN’s use of polls dating to mid-July, when she was well outside of the top 10 candidates could keep her off the stage. The Hill reports that she is currently battling with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the final spot in the next debate:

Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina are battling to be on the main stage of the next GOP presidential debate. 

While Christie’s supporters are spending $1 million in advertising to solidify his spot, Fiorina is unlikely to be able to buy the ad time needed to help her climb enough in national polls to make it onto the main debate stage in two weeks, a GOP strategist said. 

Fiorina’s low poll numbers leading up to the first GOP debate on Aug. 6 kept her off the main stage that time, but her numbers have surged since her performance in the early evening debate of second-tier candidates. CNN, however, is deciding its top 10 using polls that date back to July 16, when she registered 1 percent or 2 percent support.

Trump has garnered most of the media attention in recent weeks, but the rise of both Carson and Fiorina hasn’t gone unnoticed either. There is clearly a large bloc of Republican voters dissatisfied with those they see as career politicians or political insiders, and while Trump currently has their focus, there are two other candidates in the field who may be able to challenge him for their support. The difference between a single viable outsider candidate and two or three could be enough to make a more conventional candidate the ultimate nominee.