The Two Faces of the GOP

White-collar Republicans, no fans of Trump or Carson, can’t figure out who they want.

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, right, smiles along with Ben Carson during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 23, 2015, 5 a.m.

De­fy­ing the pre­dic­tions of just about every­one who watches polit­ics even re­motely, the two non­tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders re­main at the top of just-re­leased opin­ion polls. Pub­lic polls, it is true, have pro­lif­er­ated, and many are worthy of be­ing ig­nored. But four of the most re­spec­ted sur­veys came out this week, and they pretty much agreed.

The ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll found an un­usu­ally wide, 10-point lead for Don­ald Trump over second-place fin­ish­er Ben Car­son (32 per­cent to 22 per­cent). Sen. Marco Ru­bio ran third, at 10 per­cent, fol­lowed by former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush (7 per­cent) and Sen. Ted Cruz (5 per­cent). Every­one else in the Re­pub­lic­an field drew 3 per­cent or less.

The CNN/ORC sur­vey pegged Trump at 27 per­cent, five points ahead of Car­son. Ru­bio and Bush were tied for third, at 8 per­cent, fol­lowed by former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee and Sen. Rand Paul, at 5 per­cent each. The latest Fox News poll put Trump at 24 per­cent and Car­son a point be­hind, fol­lowed by Cruz (10 per­cent), Ru­bio (9 per­cent), and Bush (8 per­cent) in a pack. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, Trump led Car­son by three points (25 per­cent to 22 per­cent), out­pa­cing Ru­bio (13 per­cent), Cruz (9 per­cent), and Bush (8 per­cent).

The com­mon thread: So far, Trump and Car­son are run­ning well ahead of their more tra­di­tion­al rivals. This is no longer a sur­prise. But three months ago, who would have guessed?

Don­ald Trump’s Lead Ex­plained in Two Sen­tences”—that was the head­line of a piece this week by Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Ron­ald Brown­stein. Those sen­tences were: “The blue-col­lar wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party elect­or­ate has con­sol­id­ated around one can­did­ate. The party’s white-col­lar wing re­mains frag­men­ted.” Among Re­pub­lic­ans without a col­lege de­gree, Trump holds a very sub­stan­tial lead, but—this, from GOP poll­ster Glen Bol­ger—“nobody has con­sol­id­ated the col­lege-gradu­ate vote against Trump.” Roughly half of Trump’s sup­port, poll­sters have found, comes from Re­pub­lic­ans who identi­fy with the Tea Party move­ment—but half doesn’t. Trump runs par­tic­u­larly well among men young­er than 45 and, not sur­pris­ingly, among Re­pub­lic­ans who fre­quently watch Fox News.

While Trump is cap­tur­ing a ma­jor­ity of the blue-col­lar, less-than-col­lege-edu­cated half of the GOP, the party’s oth­er half—white-col­lar, col­lege-edu­cated—is splintered. Partly, this is at­trib­ut­able to the un­der­per­form­ance of two can­did­ates—Bush and Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er—who were ex­pec­ted to crowd out their com­pet­it­ors in this half of the party. Bush has dom­in­ated in terms of fun­drais­ing and en­dorse­ments, but by any oth­er met­ric, he has fallen far short of ex­pect­a­tions. Walk­er didn’t live up to his billing and dropped out of the race. Their fail­ures to thrive cre­ated a polit­ic­al va­cu­um that has left the party’s once-un­beat­able white-col­lar con­stitu­ency still win­dow-shop­ping and, in some cases, de­mor­al­ized and di­vided.

But this leaves un­ex­plained the strong sup­port for Dr. Car­son, the oth­er polit­ic­al novice who’s fly­ing high. The re­tired pe­di­at­ric neurosur­geon draws more sup­port among fe­male and white-col­lar Re­pub­lic­ans than Trump does. A more im­port­ant dif­fer­ence: His sup­port­ers are very re­li­gious and typ­ic­ally more con­ser­vat­ive than Trump’s, who tend to be pop­u­list more than strictly con­ser­vat­ive. Per­son­al­ity, un­doubtedly, plays a role. Trump is the flam­boy­ant man-about-town who brags about hav­ing been fea­tured on the cov­er of Play­boy (fully clothed). Car­son is soft-spoken, usu­ally even-tempered—a gen­tle­man, not a loud­mouth.

An un­usu­al di­men­sion of Car­son’s sup­port among con­ser­vat­ives, poll­sters add, is simply that he is an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an they agree with. Some of Car­son’s sup­port­ers are try­ing to show that their op­pos­i­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama isn’t be­cause of his race but be­cause of vehe­ment dis­agree­ment on the is­sues. Re­pub­lic­an poll­sters note that black con­ser­vat­ives such as Sen. Tim Scott, the South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an, have also be­nefited from this in re­cent years.

The ques­tion re­mains wheth­er Trump or Car­son can at­tract many new sup­port­ers, as weak­er can­did­ates fol­low Walk­er and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in­to the sun­set. It’s hard to see Trump gain­ing very much; some polls have him still rising a little, but more of them show him de­clin­ing a little more. Car­son might pick up a few per­cent­age points as Hucka­bee, Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, and former Sen. Rick San­tor­um fall by the way­side, as they al­most cer­tainly will.

Nor is it clear that either front-run­ner could in­her­it the oth­er’s sup­port­ers. Car­son folks re­gard Trump as vain and pro­fane; Trump folks would see Car­son as bor­ing. And no one wins a pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion with sup­port from only a quarter or a third of the party.

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