The anti-Trump? Why Ben Carson is surging in Iowa

Ben Carson, famous as a neurosurgeon, has never held elective office. And voters find him likeable. In the 2016 presidential race, those qualities matter a lot. 

Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette/AP
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at a rally in Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 27.

Ben Carson, in many ways, is the antithesis of Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump is loud and bombastic; Dr. Carson is low-key and genial. When Trump speaks, he chops his hands in the air as if to enhance his brashness. Carson has calm, steady, surgeon’s hands – “Gifted Hands,” as his memoir is titled. Trump comes across as the aggressively self-confident businessman he is; Carson has the bedside manner of the physician he is.

And they’re both hot properties in the GOP presidential nomination race, ranked one and two nationally, and tied for the lead in the latest poll out of Iowa. Trump and Carson each got 23 percent of the vote among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday.  Iowa’s Republican caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 2, are the first contest in the 2016 nominating race, and are a crucial test.

The outsider appeal of the three nonpoliticians in the GOP race – Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard – is well-documented. For Trump and Carson, another common denominator is authenticity. Each is being himself, and in a field packed with career politicians, that’s a plus.

Carson is gaining support because “he’s viewed as principled,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Second, he’s widely seen as likeable. And third, he doesn’t talk like a politician. Any time voters hear something that sounds like political double talk, they tune out.”

Carson’s likeability shines in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll that came out over the weekend. Among all 17 Republican presidential candidates, Carson ranked first on favorability at 79 percent, with only 8 percent viewing him unfavorably.

In the first Republican debate, held Aug. 8, Trump dominated in every way – both in the coverage of his comments and in the amount of time he consumed (11:14). Carson got about half as much speaking time (6:46) and was seen as almost sleepy, until the end, when he sprang to life and made one of the more memorable statements.

“I’m the only one to separate Siamese twins...,” Carson said, “the only one to operate on babies while they were still in the mother’s womb, the only one to take out half of a brain – although you would think, if you go to Washington, that someone had beat me to it.”

That comment brought down the house. It was probably pre-planned and rehearsed, but Carson delivered it with such ease – and a smile – that Republicans ate it up.

A week later, when the first major post-debate national poll was released, some analysts declared Carson the winner. Fox News showed Carson at 12 percent, up from 7 percent in its pre-debate poll. That’s a 71 percent increase, better than any other candidate.

Another dimension that cannot go unstated is that Carson is African-American, important to Republicans tired of being reminded that they are woefully deficient in their support among minorities. He is, to some, the Republicans’ Barack Obama – and perhaps even more authentically black than President Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and was raised largely by his white mother and her parents.

Carson grew up in Detroit and was raised by a single mother. In early 2013, when Carson burst onto the political scene and lectured Obama in person at the National Prayer Breakfast, he was suddenly all over Fox News. Commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic called Carson “the Conservative Black Hope of the moment.”

More than two years later, Carson has proved himself to be no mere political flash in the pan. Two weeks ago, some 12,000 people reportedly turned out in Phoenix, Ariz., to hear him speak – more than came to hear Trump at the same venue.

We’re still in the runup to the 2016 primaries. The next Republican debate is Sept. 16, when candidates can expect sharper questions on their policy views. Carson wins strong support from Christian conservative voters – a major force in the Iowa caucuses – for his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Yet earlier this month, he was confronted with – and defended – research he did with fetal tissue several decades ago.

Carson called the revelation of the 1992 paper “desperate,” and suggested to The Washington Post that the brouhaha reflected a lack of understanding about how medical research is conducted.

If Carson continues to rise in the polls, the issue may come back. Or maybe issue positions aren’t the most important element in voter decisions. Maybe being a nonpolitician, and coming across as authentic, is more important.

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