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 forcontroversial 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.
Nice and decent matters as much as character. Loud, insulting, arrogant grows tiresome after awhile. Dr. Carson, he’s much more thoughtful on the issues that matter. He’s not going to bite your head off if you disagree with him. You cannot become a successful neurosurgeon by being the exact opposite.
I can’t go along with his support of illegal immigration and amnesty. He would be good either as Surgeon General or head of Health and Human Services, but not for president.