Ben Carson Rising: Is Nice Making a Comeback?

Ben Carson Rising: Is Nice Making a Comeback?
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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.

Now, Carson has caught up to Trump, at least in Iowa, two new polls show. Both candidates are political outsiders, but their styles are starkly different. So how can the quieter candidate—whose most memorable lines from the GOP debate included the quip, "I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again”—be surging?

“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. Niceness, however, can be a liability. Just ask Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and 2012 GOP hopeful who had already dropped out of the race by this time last cycle, in part because of his perceived lack of grit. 

The difference seems to be that Carson hasn’t shied away from saying what he thinks, or being politically incorrect. He built a conservative following after criticizing President Obama to his face a national prayer breakfast. And he has been known for controversial comments on gay marriage, Obamacare, and the IRS, among other things. 

Carson’s rise isn’t entirely surprising; it’s just been overlooked. According to the RealClearPolitics average, Carson has maintained a steady position in the polls at or above 7 percent over the summer. After all, he did secure a prime spot on the debate stage in Cleveland last month when others did not.

Taylor suggests interest in Carson is more about authenticity, especially in Iowa, and that voters sense that Carson is genuine. “People are frustrated by politicians promising things to their constituents, and once they get elected, they don’t follow through,” Taylor says. “I think the appeal with Dr. Carson is he says what he does and does what he says.”

And the campaign isn’t convinced that Carson and Trump are appealing to the same supporters, which may help explain the split. “Some people are upset and are fed up and want someone to hammer. And others want someone to fix it,” says Ryan Rhodes, a state Tea Party leader who is running Carson’s Iowa campaign, adding that campaign events attract independents and some Democrats.

“It’s not that they are just craving a non-politician or outsider … they are craving someone who is just not there for the political gain or themselves, who says it’s not about me--it’s about fixing a problem,” Rhodes says.

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’s is a divorce decree,” says Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa radio host backing Ted Cruz.

The styles of Trump and Cruz are somewhat comparable. So how does Carson fit into the calculus?

“It’s not about chutzpah or style--it comes down to who is not like we have ever voted for before?” says Deace. “This is clearly developing as a tear-down-the-status-quo election” in Iowa. 

The key for candidates like Carson, however, is translating poll numbers and momentum into actual support, turning out Republicans on that cold caucus night in February. This will help determine whether voters’ interest in outsiders is more than a fling. 

“There’s an organic, natural pocket of support in a state that is relatively fertile for outside candidates,” says Republican strategist Tim Albrecht. Carson is different from candidates like Bachmann and Cain, who enjoyed some time at the top of polls in 2010, in that “he has built a national brand and reputation,” Albrecht says. “But he’s got to prove he’s capable of putting together a machine to get all the way. “ 

Carson’s campaign (which already went through turmoil and restructuring), says it’s building infrastructure in Iowa, slowly but surely. His managers are running a lean operation with four paid staffers on the ground there, but they do have campaign chairs in all 99 Iowa counties.

Carson hasn’t spent as much time in Iowa as some of his rivals, instead campaigning around the country. He drew roughly 12,000 people at a rally in Phoenix in mid-August, and last week, he campaigned in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But after the GOP debate, in which Carson, though quiet, was well received, he went straight to Iowa for a multi-city tour, drawing a few hundred at different stops. The campaign says Carson will return soon. As far as the ground game is concerned, Carson’s small team is focused on grassroots motivation. “Our supporters are evangelists for Ben: they’re going out, telling their neighbors, sharing his book and signing up to go caucus,” says Rhodes. “We want to grab them and give them a stake in the campaign.”

Beyond infrastructure, issues and behavior will matter for Carson and candidates like him. While voters feel they know everything about Trump, or are at least not surprised by new revelations, they are still learning about candidates such as Carson and Carly Fiorina. Stumbles or controversy could be magnified. 

While the durability of outsider, anti-politician candidates may be in question, some activists believe interest in them will only intensify in September, when more people are paying attention and when Congress is back from recess, addressing the budget, Planned Parenthood defunding, and the Iran deal.

“If we think the voters are angry now, wait until this fall when [congressional leaders] sell out and surrender on every key battle there is,” says Deace, noting that will be Cruz’s time to shine. “It will strengthen the outsider candidates all the more.”

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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