In Search of the Anti-Politician

A lot of Republican voters are mad as hell, and they’re choosing between a quiet man and a loudmouth.

Ben Carson, right, watches as Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 30, 2015, 5 a.m.

You can look at polls and read news ac­counts all day long, but the frus­tra­tion, des­pair—and, in some cases, rage—among a mul­ti­tude of Re­pub­lic­an voters can be lost in the num­bers. Bet­ter to let them just talk. An­ec­dot­ally, you can chat with friends, re­l­at­ives, neigh­bors, cab­drivers, and oth­er reg­u­lar folks. But the an­ti­pathy really comes through when you listen in on Re­pub­lic­an voters gathered in fo­cus groups, such as one con­vened last week in In­di­ana­pol­is by poll­ster Peter Hart. Since 2004, Hart has con­duc­ted fo­cus groups of voters for the Annen­berg Pub­lic Policy Cen­ter at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania, and no one does it bet­ter.

The dozen In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­ans, all likely voters, put in­to con­text why more than half of the po­ten­tial par­ti­cipants in GOP primar­ies and caucuses are cur­rently sup­port­ing busi­ness mag­nate Don­ald Trump, phys­i­cian Ben Car­son, or ex-CEO Carly Fior­ina, who still counts as a polit­ic­al novice des­pite hav­ing lost a U.S. Sen­ate race in Cali­for­nia. Dis­af­fected voters seem to be yearn­ing for someone who is the an­ti­thes­is of a tra­di­tion­al politi­cian.

Which someone? Well, ac­cord­ing to opin­ion polls, that de­pends—on voters’ so­cial and eco­nom­ic class and re­li­gious be­liefs (or the lack there­of) and on the can­did­ates’ tem­pera­ment. Down­scale whites, along with some tea party ad­her­ents and oth­er pop­u­lists, tend to grav­it­ate to­ward Trump. The soft-spoken Car­son draws sup­port from wo­men and voters who are some­what more up­scale, white-col­lar, and re­li­gious (who at­tend church at least weekly). Fior­ina’s sup­port is even more up­scale and con­sid­er­ably more cereb­ral, but it’s harder to pin down bey­ond that.

The com­mon de­nom­in­at­or for par­ti­cipants in the fo­cus group: a de­sire for someone who is un­tain­ted by the polit­ic­al pro­cess. They see policy ex­pert­ise and ex­per­i­ence in pub­lic of­fice as, at a min­im­um, vastly over­rated or—for some par­ti­cipants—down­right dis­qual­i­fy­ing. This is quite a switch for a polit­ic­al party that has tra­di­tion­ally gone for known com­mod­it­ies, for can­did­ates the voters felt they knew and were com­fort­able with.

“Voters are pay­ing at­ten­tion and are much more in the pro­cess than in pre­vi­ous polit­ic­al years,” Hart and his as­so­ci­ate, Cor­rie Hunt, con­cluded in an ana­lys­is pre­pared after the fo­cus group, us­ing data from quant­it­at­ive sur­veys. Know­ledge re­mains at the “sound bite” level, they re­por­ted, but voters’ “aware­ness and per­cep­tions of the ma­jor can­did­ates are still quite formed.”

Trump re­mains the pivot point—“the ‘straw that stirs the drink,’ ” as Hart and Hunt put it, “both in this group and among voters over­all.” Even so, they said, Trump’s high poll num­bers “ob­scure a sense of con­cern and un­cer­tainty that these voters voiced about hav­ing him as pres­id­ent of the United States. But for now, they are at­trac­ted to him like a moth is to a flame.” The can­did­ates’ tem­pera­ment, the poll­sters found, is cru­cial: “For these par­ti­cipants, Don­ald Trump feels too strong and di­vis­ive, Jeb Bush feels too soft and staid, and cur­rently Ben Car­son emerges as a calm and up­stand­ing per­son they like.” Marco Ru­bio and Carly Fior­ina “have broken through and show ap­peal,” the poll­sters ad­ded, while John Kasich and Ted Cruz “are on the out­skirts.”

In what I thought was their most per­cept­ive con­clu­sion about Re­pub­lic­an voters’ state of mind, Hart and Hunt ob­served: “Be­hind all of this is a sense that these people have done a bet­ter job of fig­ur­ing out what they are against rather than what they are for. Part of the chal­lenge that emerges for Re­pub­lic­ans is that there ap­pears to be noth­ing pos­it­ive around which they can unite. Much of this dis­cus­sion was spent rail­ing against what is wrong rather than search­ing for a unit­ing vis­ion of what they want in their nom­in­ee. A unit­ing lead­er may yet emerge, but for now the con­sensus is around a quiet man versus
a loud­mouth.”

Part of what is wrong, to these Re­pub­lic­ans, is their party’s per­form­ance in Con­gress. “They feel let down by lead­ers who have failed to take ad­vant­age of their ma­jor­ity po­s­i­tion and giv­en in far too many times to a pres­id­ent they see as over­step­ping his au­thor­ity,” the poll­sters re­por­ted. “These primary voters have lost pa­tience with cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers who they be­lieve have failed to unite the party and work to­geth­er to achieve real res­ults.”

And so, the be­lief takes hold—in the polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment, at least—that con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­ors and opin­ion lead­ers have raised un­real­ist­ic ex­pect­a­tions about what can be done in Wash­ing­ton without fili­buster- and veto-proof Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies in Con­gress—or con­trol of the White House. Com­plic­ated is­sues get dumbed down.

“We’re sick of ca­reer politi­cians,” said a wo­man in the fo­cus group who sup­ports Trump, and “we’re out to clean house.” An­oth­er wo­man, a Car­son back­er, said that politi­cians “don’t keep their word. Their mor­als are loose. They don’t have val­ues. We’re just tired of them. We’re ready for someone who has not been in that role.”

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