Why Has Trump Endured as Carson Fades?

The retired neurosurgeon is in a full-fledged slide, as evangelical voters and the media alike flock to Ted Cruz.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

A new Quinnipiac poll Wednesday morning has more bad news for Ben Carson. The doctor is down to third place, at 16 percent. In the last Q poll, at the beginning of November, he was in second, just one point behind Donald Trump. Now he trails Trump by 11. That’s in line with a series of other recent polls that show him losing much of his edge. When I looked at Carson’s polling two weeks ago, it looked like he might be facing a downturn. Now he’s lost between a quarter and a third of his support, depending on how you run the averages. It’s a collapse.

Here’s what his trend looks like against Trump’s:

Trump and Carson have been twinned in media coverage for months, and not just because they’ve been leading the field: two outsider candidates, atypical presidential contenders with no debt to the traditional party structure, little interest in old-fashioned political pieties, and no practical experience in either campaigning or policymaking.

But if you had to bet on whether Carson or Trump would do better, Carson would have been a safer wager. He was a man of unassailable character, a highly lauded neurosurgeon and bestselling author. He had an impressive rags-to-riches personal story, and his comments assailing Obamacare at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast had made him an instant conservative folk hero. Trump, meanwhile, was a thrice-married mogul with a history of questionable business practices, a record of inflammatory comments, a grab bag of unorthodox beliefs for a self-proclaimed conservative, and a long history of party-switching and donations to Democrats.

Take their campaigns, too. Trump has little fundraising and nothing resembling a real campaign apparatus. His campaign staff is cobbled together from political operatives who’ve never run a national campaign, people who worked for the Trump Organization, and people with no political experience at all. Carson’s campaign is a strange melting pot of operatives from various places and eras, but they’re mostly real political professionals. There are serious questions about the strategy and sustainability of Carson’s fundraising, which I explored here, but he’s pulling in huge top-line hauls of cash. And Carson has a natural constituency, particularly in Iowa, among evangelicals.

Yet Trump, after an early November slump, has regained his footing, while Carson is sliding toward Jeb Bush territory. But the culprit doesn’t seem to be Trump. Carson’s two adversaries are the press and Ted Cruz. (Talk about strange bedfellows!) Carson depends heavily on evangelical support, but as Cruz surges, evangelical voters, especially in Iowa, have begun migrating from Carson to Cruz. With an eye toward arresting that slippage, Carson’s campaign is hosting an “evangelical rollout” Wednesday in South Carolina. He will reportedly be endorsed by some number of pastors there, though who and how many are not yet clear.

The other problem for Carson is that he seems to have lost the attention of the press. Poll numbers, especially at this still-somewhat-early stage, are heavily dependent on how much face time candidates get. As has been noted repeatedly, Trump is a wizard at garnering “earned media,” as highfalutin’ operatives and political scientists call it. Carson is attracting a steadily decreasing share of national TV attention given to the Republican candidates since his early November spike; Cruz’s trend is up, though less steeply.

Television Mentions in the Past 30 Days

None of this means it’s the end of the road for Carson. The campaign is fluid, and many candidates have been up and down—though Carson’s time is getting short to turn things around. (Back in July, I looked at Carson’s declining poll numbers and wondered whether he was finished. Oops!) Carson also still has certain advantages that Trump can’t claim: a massive fundraising operation, and a base among evangelicals—a demographic that, unlike Trump supporters, consistently votes in primary elections. (What sort of get-out-the-vote operation will Trump have?) But with less than two months to go until the Iowa caucus, Donald Trump is clearly well ahead in the outsider primary.