Why haven’t Donald Trump and Ben Carson faded away? Because they’re saying what much of the Republican Party base wants to hear on such emotional issues as immigration, gun rights and opposition to President Obama.
Trump and Carson are also fortunate to be outsiders at a time when the GOP is in chaos and the party establishment is discredited in the eyes of many voters. And the two improbable leaders in the race for the presidential nomination are compelling characters – Trump the brash and blustery billionaire, Carson the gentle and pious man of medicine.
But if their appeal were only a matter of novelty, both would have gone the way of businessman Herman Cain, who led the polls in 2007 for about a month. By contrast, Trump led the polls consistently from mid-July until the last week or so, when Carson caught up. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Carson is at 24.8 percent and Trump at 24.6 percent – a dead heat.
And they are lapping the field. Marco Rubio is a distant third at 11 percent, which is well below where he stood in June. And poor Jeb Bush, with his not-so-shiny new campaign slogan – “Jeb Can Fix It” – has slid all the way to 5.8 percent. I’d recommend he begin by fixing the wheels of his campaign, which seem to have come off.
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I would also suggest that Bush and the rest of the establishment spend less time complaining about Trump and Carson, as if they were party crashers at an invitation-only soiree, and more time listening to what these political neophytes are saying.
Trump memorably launched his campaign in June with a lurid characterization of undocumented immigrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump pledged to do two things: Deport the estimated 11 million men, women and children living here without papers; and build a “great, great wall” along the 2,000-mile southern border, with the Mexican government paying for its construction. Critics immediately pointed out that neither is remotely feasible, let alone wise. Yet Trump has never wavered. In speeches, interviews and debates, he still promises mass deportation and a wall.
Why? Because he knows that illegal immigration is a galvanizing issue for some in the GOP base. A Pew Research Center survey in September found that 73 percent of Republicans “favor building a fence along the entire Mexican border.” Pew also found that 32 percent – a third of the party – opposed any kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Mindful of these numbers, some candidates have scrambled to take tougher-sounding positions on immigration. Rubio, who once favored comprehensive reform and a path to resident status for the 11 million, now even waffles on extending President Obama’s executive action allowing those brought here as children to remain.
But no one can get to the right of Trump on immigration. If this is an issue you really care about, and you feel betrayed by the way establishment Republicans have handled it in the past, Trump is your guy. Even if he can’t do all the things he promises, maybe he'll do something.
Similarly, Carson has gone where others fear to tread on the issue of gun rights. A Pew survey last year found that 75 percent of Republicans believed it is more important to “protect the right of Americans to own guns” than to “control gun ownership.” For comparison, only 31 percent of Democrats felt that way.
Once considered suspect on guns – for wondering aloud whether everyday citizens needed to own assault rifles – Carson outflanked the field when he opined that gun control laws imposed in Nazi Germany in 1938 enabled the Holocaust. This aligns nicely with the tea party argument that Americans must be armed in case a tyrant comes to power and has to be overthrown.
Carson doesn’t claim that a tyrant already occupies the White House, but he has described Obama as being “like most psychopaths.” All the Republican candidates criticize the president, but only Carson has described the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature accomplishment, as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
Majorities of Republicans do not favor deporting 11 million people, reject all gun control legislation or believe Obama is a psychopathic slavemaster. But enough do hold such views to make it unlikely that the Trump and Carson campaigns will collapse of their own weight. The outsiders look to be settling in for a long stay.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.