ONLINE EXCLUSIVE COLUMN BY JOHN WINGERT
The meteoric rise of Dr. Ben Carson seems to have fallen once again into the depths of the polls out of which he had climbed. Under increased scrutiny and pressure from numerous groups, Carson has seen huge shortcomings, not just nationally but perhaps most disappointingly here in Iowa, where he was once in first place.
Carson’s campaign seemed to have been brought down most by the increased scrutiny of the media once he became a potential frontrunner, but even more so by the perceived lapses in his foreign policy platform.
Many investigations had revealed faults in his biographical narratives including stories of scholarships from West Point, attempted stabbing of a friend, involvement with Mannatech supplements, among others. These were found to be at best unsubstantiated and at worst, verifiably false.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, foreign policy became one of the guiding concerns and issues of the 2016 campaign season. Carson had previously spent most of his time emphasizing domestic items like a flat tax, religious liberty, and conservative values, but now has been called upon to prove himself as a viable commander-in-chief.
Statements that a Muslim could not be president seemed to undermine his ability to lead as America’s representative abroad, including to negotiate with chiefly Muslim countries.
Other statements about saying that Putin graduated at the age of 16 from the same university as Ayatollah Khamenei that were easily proven false also undermined perceptions of his understanding of foreign policy. In addition, when asked, Carson could not come up with countries with whom he would form a coalition to combat ISIS. Many times including during debates, Carson has said that China is involved in Syria. No official sources have confirmed this, and Ambassador Mussomelli, when he visited Drake, said that he could not understand where that idea originated.
There were also incredibly damaging reports from the New York Times about his foreign policy advisors. One advisor, Duane Clarridge, said of Carson: “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” Clarridge also added that Carson needs weekly foreign policy briefings to “make him smart.” Carson disavowed these comments by saying that the New York Times took advantage of an “elderly gentleman.”
This serious deficit of foreign policy credentials amid scrutiny on other fronts caused Carson to fall from the lead in Iowa to third place and seven percentage points behind Trump, who regained first position. Nationally, Carson was named in several polls ahead by four to six percentage points, but now he has fallen 10 points behind Trump in multiple polls.
So, who benefits from the collapse of the Carson moment? Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz seem to be the most likely to emerge with more support. The two are seen to represent different “lanes” in the Republican party as John Dickerson and other analysts have characterized it.
Rubio can better represent an establishment Republican who is willing to work with the party leadership, and Cruz can better represent the so-called “Hell No” caucus that does not want to compromise on conservative issues and principles.
Rubio has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign from the outset. He has consistently sought to bring the Iran Deal, ISIS, Crimean annexation, and currency manipulation to the forefront of the conversation. Debates and interviews have only underscored his foreign policy credentials from his time in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
These areas of expertise have led to significant gains in recent weeks. Nationally, Rubio is in third place with 12.5 percent support among likely Republican caucus and primary voters. In New Hampshire, a more moderate state, Rubio is now in second place behind Trump having surpassed Carson. Yet Rubio still remains 11 percent behind Trump in the most recent poll.
Cruz, on the other hand, has noticed his strongest support here in Iowa. After a strong history in the Senate of bucking Mitch McConnell’s leadership, filibustering, and initiating a government shutdown, Cruz is positioning himself as the electable, farther-right conservative. He wants to assure voters that he is an uncompromising believer in very conservative ideas, but that he also has a history of fighting the system to substantiate his rhetoric.
In Iowa polls, Cruz is now only two percent behind Trump after the state’s former frontrunner, Carson, imploded. Although Cruz has yet to lead in the state, he has laid groundwork and fundraised heavily. Cruz has also managed to secure support throughout the South that is continuing to grow. Nationally, Cruz has jumped upward to tie with Rubio at 14 percent.
Standing directly in the way of the efforts of Cruz and Rubio is Trump. The frontrunner’s support has been remarkably steady over the rises and falls of other opponents. Trump’s supporters have demonstrated a certain amount of loyalty that other candidates have not really seen. This core support has been enough to keep him the frontrunner in Republican polls for months.
This does not mean, however, that a Trump nomination is inevitable. The quintessential problem for such a nomination is his unfavorable rating among many Republicans. Although a plurality of Republican primary and caucus goers have him as their first choice, there are many who have claimed they will never vote for him in the primaries.
Carson still had a net favorability of +37, meaning that the percentage of people with a favorable view of him was higher than the percentage who had a negative view.
Trump since announcing his campaign, has suffered from high percentages of negative views. Public Policy Polling found that 52 percent of Republican voters said they had an unfavorable view of Trump, while only 23 percent said that they had a favorable view. The undecided may still think he is the best of bad options, but it will be difficult for Trump to unite the Republican party around him when so many of the party’s members do not like him.
The sheer number of candidates and fluidity of support up to this point have spread support widely across the entire field. Trump’s loyal core supporters have allowed him to stand above the other candidates. Without serious changes in the Republican field and winnowing of the options, there is no conceivable way for rivals to overpower Trump nationally.