All summer we’ve heard predictions about the fate of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. They are flashes in the pan. All sizzle and no steak. Nothing more than fools gold. Their bubble would surely burst. And all sorts of half-baked idioms that I can’t think of right now.
But here we are in mid-September and Trump and Carson haven’t imploded. Quite the contrary, their poll numbers continue an astounding ascent given the number of candidates still in the race. The latest poll, courtesy of the Washington Post, finds Trump to be the favorite of 33 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, a nine percent jump since mid-July. Carson’s numbers have been similarly ascendant, jumping from 6 percent in July to 20 percent in the latest poll. For the sake of comparison, the third place candidate, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, stands at eight percent.
The political class still can’t quite figure out what is going on. They take solace in the thought that this is similar to 2012 when a Tea Party firebrand, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, and political neophyte, businessman Herman Cain, led at various times in the race, only to see their base of support erode when it became clear they weren’t quite ready for prime time.
As renowned political scientist and poll watcher Larry Sabato wrote in mid-August, “History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of ‘rules.’” Among them, are a “widespread backing from party elites,” a “layered, professional organization that has been carefully constructed at the national level,” that the candidate must be a “disciplined politician who knows the language of politics,” and understands that “many voters become more cautious and thoughtful as the real Election Day” approaches.
But Trump and Carson aren’t just bending the rules. They aren’t even breaking the rules. They’re taking the rulebook, dousing it in kerosene, setting it on fire, spreading the ashes across the key primary states, and then rewriting the rulebook ad hoc.
Lots of pundits are pointing to the rise of non-political candidates as the result of a particularly virulent strain of anti-establishment thought. According to this line of thinking, conservatives are tired of being betrayed by their chosen leaders. They’re tired of campaign promises giving way to “political reality” once elected. They’re scared of rising debts, frustrated that Obamacare is still the law of the land, and wonder how in the world George W. Bush could have gotten suckered into pushing for TARP. Unlike past years, they’re not as concerned about ideological purity, as they are about finding someone, anyone who is simply not “of” the party, hence Trump and Carson.
But that explanation seems too narrow. It’s not just establishment Republicans that have voters fed up and looking for something fresh, it’s politics in general. The sameWashington Post poll that found Trump and Carson in the lead also found that more than 7 in 10 Americans say people in politics cannot be trusted. More than 6 in 10 say the political system is dysfunctional.
Young adults are especially cynical. The latest poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 37 percent trust the president to do the right thing all or most of the time, 25 percent trust the federal government, and just 17 percent trust Congress.
In short, voters are angry, not with any one party, but with anything and everything to do with Washington. Voters don’t care that some of the presidential candidates (Rubio, Cruz and Paul jump to mind) that they are now skeptical of are the exact same people they voted for just a few years ago because at the time they were the anti-establishment, anti-status quo candidate. Voters, at least a significant portion of them, simply don’t want anything that has been tainted by Washington. They don’t want canned speeches, they don’t want pre-vetted remarks, they don’t want someone who dances around issues, and they don’t want anyone who has been focus grouped into a shell of a person.
What they appear to want is authenticity. Someone who says what they mean and means what they say, without having had it poll-tested first. Will voters ultimately decide to take a safer, more familiar course as Election Day approaches? Perhaps. After all, it is still early. But as the days and weeks tick by and Trump and Carson continue their climb, it won’t be long before it’s no longer “early.”