The political outsider channeling voters' anger is becoming as much a thing as grilling pork chops at the Iowa State Fair.
But this election cycle, Republicans see something different with real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump carrying that mantle and leading in the polls deep into the summer: The outsider is not (yet) crumbling under heavy scrutiny.
"What we're seeing is frustration with the inaction in Washington, and it’s being manifest through some of these candidates who are not lifelong politicians," said Matt Wills, a former political director for Sen. Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential campaign, one of the last anti-establishment crusaders against Mitt Romney's eventual nomination that year.
"What we see this time is a stronger form of what has been building previously," he added.
What is also different this year is the mammoth Republican presidential field. With many of the 17 candidates talking about their resumes in politics, these outsiders are showing something different, said John Hancock, a long-time St. Louis-based Republican opposition researcher.
“During presidential campaigns, at least historically, it seems like every candidate gets their moment in the sunshine. The real test is how the candidate stands up when the sun is shining on them," he said.
Heading into the second Republican debate later this month, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon from Maryland, is closing the gap on Trump as the front-runner's unfavorable ratings have risen. Most polls show Carson and Trump leading their seasoned opponents.
“None of the establishment candidates is having any success in getting an anti-Trump vote to coalesce around them," said Patrick Murray, Monmouth University's polling director.
Instead, the support is going toward candidates such as Carson. Both he and Trump, leading campaigns that have been emboldened by their demeanor, are not dissimilar. While Trump boisterousness has helped his star rise, Carson has spoken softly but carried a big stick — touting his religion and deeply conservative beliefs to crowds of conservatives and charming the audience in the first debate.
And, while Trump has drawn criticized for his statements that have been deemed offensive – dissing Mexican immigrants , inflammatory statements about women and nearing on bullying his opponents – Carson has his own share of them , too. He compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, said students completing AP U.S. History in high school would leave "ready to go sign up for ISIS ," and said Obamacare was the "worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery ."
None of that has hurt their standing at the top of the polls. And that's not the only ways they have defied conventional wisdom.
Carson is not known as well as most of his fellow candidates, according to an Economist/YouGov survey conducted of 2,000 people online from August 28 to Sept. 1. About a third of those surveyed responded, "don't know," when asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him, including 19 percent of Republicans.
About 60 percent of people, and 87 percent of Republicans, define Trump as a "strong leader," according to the same poll. But, more than half of them say Trump is unqualified to be president, and 37 percent of them, and 12 percent of Republicans, say they think he is less honest than most people in public life — the politicians that he is running against.
Part of the problem for Carson and Carly Fiorina, the other outsider who got a big bounce from a strong performance in the debate among lower-tier candidates last month, is the kind of attention — positive and negative — that Trump has managed to draw during his summer fling with voters, said Hancock, who chairs the Missouri Republican Party.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a candidate before who has gotten the level of earned media attention at the volume he has," Hancock said. "If you’re getting tens of millions of dollars of free air time like he has, you’re going to be the front runner.”
Mabel Berezin , a sociologist at Cornell University whose work has focused on cultural and political sociology, said for these outsider candidates, personalities certainly play big, but she thinks there's more once the layers are peeled back.
"When people start saying that, ‘Oh, it’s the personality that’s driving it,’ I think it is often the case that the kinds of people saying that don’t like that the particular candidate is winning," she said. "It’s not just his personality. He’s tapping into something else. To simply say he’s demagogic is just not the answer or a good way to think about the current reality.”
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