September 11, 2015
So how do you determine who the front-runner is? When people actually start voting next year, the measures change a bit and you start thinking about who is ahead in the delegate count and who is picking up momentum in actual primary/caucus results.
Traditionally during the pre-primary phase, it’s a combination of poll numbers, money and endorsements. Two months ago, Hillary Clinton led the Democratic field by record margins in endorsements, raised well more money than the other Democratic candidates combined, led all primary/caucus polls, whether nationally or in a state and was ahead of most Republican candidates in head-to-head matchups.
Now that’s a front-runner. It also didn’t last very long. Yesterday, I declared Joe Biden the new front-runner. Given that he’s not 100% sure to run, hasn’t announced, is trailing both Clinton and Sanders in the polls, hasn’t started seriously raising money and doesn’t have many official endorsements, you may wonder how I reached that conclusion.
Until there is actual voting, the least bad way to measure a front-runner is to see who is on track to win if nobody else throws them off or they don’t make too many self-inflicted errors. If the current trends hold, candidate X will win.
Biden’s path is more promising than Hillary’s. In order for her to win, she needs to change what she’s doing. In order for him to win he needs to rinse, wash, repeat. That gives him the edge.
If you apply the same approach to the Republican field, please meet your new front-runner……Dr. Ben Carson.
On the surface, this seems more absurd than choosing Biden. Carson is doing well in polls, but is not leading in a single state. In one Iowa poll he tied Trump. Otherwise he trails him everywhere. If he’s not ahead of Trump and has never run for political office, how is Carson possibly a front-runner?
I’m not even going to argue he’s the most likely Republican nominee, though his odds are better than most (including me 48 hours ago) realize. Carson has one important thing going for him:
Based on the recent CNN national poll, if the election were tomorrow, Ben Carson would be the next President of the United States. Hypothetical head-to-head polling 14 months before Election Day don’t prove much, but he’s still doing the best of any candidate, beating Hillary by more than his opponents and ahead of Biden when the others are far behind.
Great, he would maybe do well in a general election, but how does Carson get past Trump?
Wrong question. The correct one is how Trump gets past Carson. One of these candidates benefits from unlimited free media attention. The other gets relatively little, often less than Carly Fiorina. Despite this imbalance, Carson has gained on Trump in most polls over the past month.
While attention is focused on The Donald, Carson has made more recent progress. Ok, so he has a positive polling trend line. By itself that doesn’t prove he’ll pass Trump. But if you look below the top line numbers of any poll, be it national, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, yada yada, you find Carson has the better numbers.
Most voters have not made final decisions. Most have multiple candidates they like. To see who has the most upside and who is on the best track, a few things are worth looking at:
Carson is the most frequent second choice. If you add first and second choice together, he’s already virtually tied with Trump in many polls. Perhaps more important, Carson is by far the most common second choice for Trump voters, but Trump is not as universally liked by Carson fans.
It’s easy to see which candidate that imbalanced arrangement favors.
This is a great way to see who voters might be willing to consider, either because they change their mind, or because their previous first choice is no longer viable.
Carson is the most popular candidate in the race and it isn’t all that close. Several candidates have very good ratios. Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Scott Walker all have good numbers, often in the +50 range. Ted Cruz is not far behind.
Carson is generally at least +70, sometimes better. To put this in perspective, Jeb Bush is barely even (among Republican voters!) and Chris Christie is upside down. Trump has made lots of progress since the first debate and is now usually +25 or +30.
Sections of the Party
People often talk about large groups within Republican primary voters. Among the most common measurements are separating out Tea Party, Evangelicals, self-described conservatives, or moderate-to-liberal voters. These are not mutually exclusive, a voter can be an Evangelical conservative Tea Party person, but it still gives you an idea of how well someone would be able to unite the Party, and where opposition would come from.
Each candidate has strengths, but at the moment Carson has no weaknesses. None. As you might expect, he does better with Tea Party and Evangelicals than moderates, but moderates still like him better than most other candidates.
The most obvious criticism of Carson, one that Trump has already started in on, is lack of executive experience. Having no experience in elected office is already normally a problem, but seems less so this year. However any political novice who has run for president in the past century and received even slightly serious consideration was either a CEO or managed the D-Day invasion.
Voters don’t seem to care yet. When Iowa voters were recently asked to evaluate the candidates on having the temperament and personality to handle a foreign policy crisis, Carson did best, Trump among the worst.
Voters trust Ben Carson. They trust his judgment, they trust his temperament. As he reminded everyone in his closing comments in the first debate, he successfully separated conjoined twins.
Voters have reached the conclusion that if you were a teenager in inner-city Detroit at the time it went up in flames and responded by getting into Yale before going on to become a groundbreaking neurosurgeon, you may be the candidate most able to handle the meat grinder of the modern presidency.
Much like Trump, Carson is not politically correct. Much unlike Trump, Carson is modest. Unlike Jeb, he seems comfortable in his skin and does have some charisma, even if he isn’t loud. Unlike Walker, Carson is used to taking to people all over the country, used to taking a national view of issues. Unlike Rubio, Carson is on track to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlike Fiorina, he’s universally considered to have done his job well.
Obviously, Carson has a very long way to go. If he continues to do well, the scrutiny will grow. If he ever did anything wrong, was sued for malpractice, flirted with a nurse, whatever, we’ll find out soon enough. People know Trump hasn’t been an angel, he doesn’t claim to be one. People know career politicians sometimes make unsavory compromises. For someone relying on personal integrity for some of his support, Carson can’t afford too many issues.
However, we’re looking at where these guys are, not at what might happen if something bad happens. Until it does, Carson has underlying numbers in the stratosphere.
The time between now and Iowa will tax Carson’s mental resources tremendously. The only thing harder than accomplishing what he has is running the presidential gauntlet. Trump will try to knock him down, and most other candidates need to grab some Carson supporters to have a chance. Again though, better to be Carson with the support than Walker trying to get it back.
People should not make the mistake of comparing Carson to Herman Cain. Yes, they are both outsider, up-from-bootstraps, 60-something (at time of running) African Americans who rely on grass-roots support and know how to hold an audience.
Cain headed a lobbying organization for the restaurant industry and ran a 4th rate pizza chain. It’s more than I’ve accomplished, but doesn’t match where Carson got in his field. Doctors are still generally more respected than business executives, and way more respected than the lawyers who normally run for president.
Repeal of Obamacare will eventually wind up as a campaign issue. When it does, the surgeon who has spent years criticizing the program will have an advantage.
As fun as Cain’s moment in the sun was, it’s unimaginable to me that he would have reached those heights with the competition Carson is facing this time. Being Not Mitt Romney doesn’t guarantee oxygen anymore.
Carson is also a far more serious candidate than Steve Forbes (another beneficiary of a vacuum/one issue candidate) and Pat Robertson (no appeal beyond Evangelicals). It’s hard to imagine Carson getting nominated because none of these others did, but he’s far superior. Forbes was not +70 in favorability and was not the candidate most trusted in a foreign crisis.
Pretend for a moment that instead of running as an Independent, Ross Perot instead ran in an open Republican contest (no incumbent). Pretend he didn’t drop out for a couple months for mysterious reasons before returning. Are we sure Perot couldn’t have won?
How much more qualified was Perot than Carson? Both are completely self-made. One was an expert in the business world, the other practiced medicine, a small insignificant thing that only represents about 20% of the economy (the largest chunk). Carson has the better temperament.
If you ask me if I’d rather bet on Carson or the field, I’m picking the field. If you ask me who the most likely nominee is, I’m going to say Marco Rubio, who has pretty good underlying numbers himself.
Carson is still the front-runner. Rubio has to change his approach, or do something new to get more traction in the early voting states. Carson just needs to hang in as the scrutiny mounts. If he hangs in long enough, he’ll become the favorite in the odds too, but for now, the Doctor has the high ground.