Why Ben Carson may be poised to overtake Donald Trump

Will the retired neurosurgeon leverage his status as a Washington outsider and his likability to overtake real-estate mogul Donald Trump as the GOP frontrunner in Iowa?

Danny Johnston/AP
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is interviewed in Little Rock, Ark., on Aug. 27.

He's an outsider candidate with no political experience and a successful career in the private sector who has a penchant for controversial remarks and attacking the media.

And he might just have what it takes to overtake Donald Trump.

Even as Mr. Trump's histrionics continue to suck up the media's oxygen, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – a picture of understated calm – has quietly risen to the top of the Republican field.

In fact, he's done the "unthinkable," tying Trump at the top of the pack with the support of 23 percent of surveyed Iowa voters, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday – the first time in over a month that Trump was not the undisputed leader in an early-nominating state.

And it's not the first poll to show Dr. Carson surging. A Fox News survey found he enjoyed the largest post-debate gain among the field of 17 candidates, and a HuffPost Pollster aggregation of national polls shows Carson at second place nationwide, albeit with 12 percent compared to Trump's 30 percent.

Many primary voters seem willing to support "anyone that is not of D.C.," said Republican strategist Rory Cooper to the Guardian. They "want something new, and they keep rearranging themselves among Trump, Carly [Fiorina], and Carson, with a few landing on [Ted] Cruz or [Rand] Paul."

So, will Carson overtake Trump? Trump's support may be eroding or remain immune to shifts of opinion, but one thing is certain: Carson is poised to surge.

He leads Trump with women, evangelical Christians, and people who consider themselves to be “very conservative," according to Monday's poll, insights he can leverage to increase his support.

The same poll also found that, unlike Trump, Carson's favorability rating is staggering: 81 percent favorable, with just 6 percent unfavorable. Compare that to Trump, whose favorability is 52 percent, with 33 percent unfavorable.

And Carson is enjoying all this success with relatively little media attention, especially compared to Trump.

From June 28 through Aug. 20, Carson received only 0.9 percent of the news coverage of the top 16 Republican candidates, based on the number of Google News “hits” he received, according to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight. Trump, by comparison, has received about 60 times more media coverage than Carson, Mr. Silver calculated.

"If Carson’s doing this well with so little media attention, imagine what happens when he gets some," Mr. Silver writes. "Polls will trigger more coverage of Carson’s campaign, which will in turn improve his standing in the polls, which will produce yet more coverage, and so forth."

And Carson, who's taken a page or two from Trump's playbook, has proven he knows how to stay in the headlines.

Like Trump, he has a knack for unfiltered statements, like when he compared America to Nazi Germany, or compared Obamacare to slavery.

And, like his richer rival, he's taken to slamming the media, most recently, launching a tough attack on CNN.

Carson, an African-American man raised by a single mother in Detroit who went on to become the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, is something of a triple threat, says Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Firstly, "he’s viewed as principled," Mr. O’Connell told the Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldmann. "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."

Is his likability enough to outpace the less-likable Trump?

No one knows. But consider this: When Trump visited Phoenix for a rally last month, some 5,000 supporters were there to greet him. When Carson visited Phoenix last week, he was overwhelmed to find an estimated 12,000 supporters cheering him on.

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