America's Crush on Political Outsiders: Summer Fling or Real Deal?

America's Crush on Political Outsiders: Summer Fling or Real Deal?
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The Republican Party likes to boast, as it should, that its field of presidential candidates looks, sounds, and appears presidential.

You’ve got a handful of current and former governors, some from key swing states, and a handful of current and former U.S. senators. And early on, the fight for the soul of the GOP revolved around whether state or federal office holders were best equipped to handle the challenges of a modern presidency and the desire for a smaller government.

But a summer of discontent has given way to the new kids in town—the ones who have worked in operating rooms, boardrooms and on television sets instead of congressional hallways and governors’ mansions. 

Donald Trump has dominated headlines since he announced his candidacy June 16—one day after Jeb Bush got into the race. He’s maintained a significant lead in the polls, both nationally and in early states, and his candidacy appears to be as bullet proof as a Kevlar vest.

But the two other political outsiders, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, are capturing voters’ interests, too. Fiorina has risen in the polls since her well-received debate performance last week. And Carson has maintained a high standing nationally and in Iowa.

Both have distinguished themselves as anti-politicians, while tapping into the frustration and anxiety propelling Trump’s rise. “The political class has failed you” is a refrain of Fiorina’s campaign. And Carson, in his closing remarks at last week’s debate, identified himself as “the only one to separate Siamese twins, the only one to operate on babies while they're still in their 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."

Most importantly, both have managed to thrive in a Trump-dominated environment, even as they pursue similar voters—those fed up with politics as usual and want someone to shake things up. If Trump starts to fall—and that’s no sure thing—one of these candidates could pick up his pieces. What’s remarkable about this trio is that together, in Iowa, so far, they have captured roughly 40 percent of the vote, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

“There’s always been an appetite, especially in Iowa, for outsider candidates, for a non-political solution in terms of presidential politics,” says Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican, ticking off names like Pat Buchanan, Malcolm Forbes, Pat Robertson, and Herman Cain. “What’s fascinating this time is you actually see these outsiders polling near the top of the heap, and candidates like Bush, Rubio and Paul as almost second-tier candidates.” 

Early-state observers say the momentum of outsider candidates has brought new potential voters into the fold and that this could help propel the party. And the phenomenon is not exclusive to Republicans. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running as a Democrat in the presidential primary, is also surging in the polls and showing himself to be a worthy competitor for Clinton, at least in New Hampshire. Sanders has been in the U.S. Senate for decades, but has positioned himself as an outsider of the institution. Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a freshman, is also running as a Washington outsider.

The challenge for the surging outsider candidates, however, is to avoid becoming just a summer headline, or a punch line of past polls, like Cain turned out to be. At this time in the last cycle, Michele Bachmann was winning the Iowa straw poll and sitting atop most of the surveys. 

Is the conservative love affair with the outsider candidate hot enough to last through winter, when caucus goers and primary voters make their picks?

Trump appears to be invincible, surviving and even thriving after his inflammatory statements about Sen. John McCain, Megyn Kelly and others. Supporters frustrated with the party and the political system more broadly like that about him. A CNN poll found 44 percent of Iowa Republicans thought he could best bring about change in Washington. 

But Carson and Fiorina show potential staying power, too, and are approaching the same Trump constituency in different ways. Carson appeals as more mild-mannered and uplifting, but unafraid to rock the boat. He also brings a different kind of smarts and savvy as one of the nation’s leading surgeons. Fiorina has emerged as the sharp force against Hillary Clinton and blunts Democrats' charges of a GOP war on women. 

“The discontent with the status quo is more than just a summer fling,” says Lauren Carney, a New Hampshire Republican activist working for the Fiorina campaign. “There are people who really want to have some answers and a new direction.”

Part of the outsider appeal for Republicans may come from knowing that Clinton will likely be the Democratic opponent in the general election. Political outsiders believe they can draw a sharp contrast between themselves and Clinton, who evokes Washington politics and political power. In a primary largely focused on who can best take on Clinton, the outsider case can be compelling.

Carson and Fiorina also have the likability factor going for them, says one pollster. 

“When you talk about growth, if you're looking at the futures market of the GOP, you want to have a candidate … that has an incredible popularity,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University poll, which showed Carson and Fiorina benefiting from their debate performances. Paleologos says Carson and Fiorina were the only candidates polled who had an unfavorability rating under 10 percent; 78 percent have a favorable opinion of Carson and 70 percent had a favorable view of Fiorina. (Rubio also improved his standing in this poll.)

“They’ve got the likability piece now,” says Paleologos. “It's the electability piece that's fluid.”

With 17 candidates in the race, poll numbers are likely to be fluid between now and when voting begins in February. Whether outsider candidates can sustain and improve their numbers over the next several months will be a key storyline of this primary campaign.

Will voters’ summer romances with outsiders survive the fall and winter?

Robinson, the Iowa GOP strategist, points to news that Carson used fetal tissue from abortions in his medical research in 1992. Carson defended his position while continuing to call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood in light of the recent controversial videos. Fiorina will also continue to be vetted, and her business record will come under more scrutiny. Robinson says voters tend to have a change of heart “when a candidate doesn’t meet your perception of him or her.”

Trump, however, does not seem to have this problem. Controversies about his current and past statements have only propelled his campaign. And that’s what makes this cycle’s interest in outsiders unique.

“With Trump the rules are different, it appears,” says Paleologos. “While any other candidate, like Bachmann or Cain, were vulnerable to a gaffe or vulnerable to a misstep, Trump is fueled by it.”

The outsider has shown signs of taking this process seriously. He is organizing on the ground in Iowa, as the Washington Post has detailed. He is going to the Iowa State Fair, a must-stop for presidential candidates. And, as if to prove he’s not totally allergic to protocol, he will be visiting the iconic butter cow.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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