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2016 primary voters flirt with political outsider candidates

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, surging in the polls, is the latest beneficiary of voters' disdain for the political status quo

How many years of combined governing experience do the three candidates currently leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination have between them? The math is easy: Zero.

The GOP contest in 2016 is shaping up to be a particularly good one for novices hailing from outside the political establishment, according to the latest round of polling. A Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers released on Monday found the newest beneficiary of that climate: Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon with a history of staking out stridently conservative positions, surged to catch up to business magnate Donald Trump, each earning 23 percent of the vote to tie for first place.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has also gained ground after a commanding debate performance in Cleveland last month, coming in third with 10 percent support.

National polls of Republican voters show a similar pattern, with the fortunes of Trump, Carson and Fiorina rising, as candidates with storied political resumes like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul falter or struggle to gain traction.

Political analysts said that voters’ preference for nontraditional candidates this cycle reflects a deep frustration with the state of affairs in Washington and the friction in the Republican Party between grassroots conservatives and their elected leaders.  

“There’s a lot of frustration out there amongst Republicans and they’re frustrated at their own leaders. They look at [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and [Speaker] John Boehner and a lot of them wonder what good are they because they don’t see any conservative or any Republican victories,” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa GOP strategist. “That’s what leads into this appetite for someone who can go to Washington and turn the table over on things and maybe provide the change they so desperately want.”  

Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll, which was released on Sunday and showed Carson and Trump leading the GOP presidential field, seemed to corroborate the sentiment: 75 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers said they were “unsatisfied” or “mad as hell” at GOP members in Congress.

Robinson noted that Iowa caucus-goers have a long history of buoying candidates who have never held elected office, including conservative Christian activist Pat Robertson in 1988, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan in 1996 and publishing executive Steve Forbes in 2000. Political outsiders are also capitalizing on the fact that there is not a clear front-runner in 2016 who has consolidated the support of the Republican establishment, as was the case with Mitt Romney in 2012.

“If I’m one of these sitting officeholders, it wouldn’t calm my nerves at the fact that an outsider has never won in the caucuses — they’ve come close,” Robinson said. “And this environment is much different than what we’ve seen.”

Voters, meanwhile, don’t appear to think that the dearth of political experience detracts from a candidate’s ability to govern as president.

“People are sick of the same old same old of people saying that they will go to Washington and be a change agent and once they get there they don’t follow through. I think with Dr. Carson, everything he says in his professional and personal life he’s followed through on,” said State Sen. Rob Taylor, Carson’s campaign co-chair in the state. “He’s a man that’s proven on more than one occasion that he does what he says and says what he does.”

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said it’s possible that voters who are gravitating toward the outsider process are underestimating the fact that political leadership is a unique skill unto itself and the difficulty of navigating today’s polarized system.

“Presidents rarely have to separate twins with surgery,” he said. “Political leadership is as much as skill as surgery or being an entrepreneur. People who have that experience, who have been governors and have been elected to office, understand that political process is something very special and you have to be able to compromise and listen to the people, and you can’t usually get done what you’d like because there are others with power who can prevent you from implementing things.”

Schmidt noted too that the rebellion against the political status quo isn’t just evident in the Republican Party. Democrats have their own insurgent in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Although the self-described socialist is much more acquainted with politics, having clocked 16 years in the House and eight in the Senate, he too is campaigning as a political revolutionary, intent on shaking up the way things are done in D.C.

Whether caucus-goers’ fling with outsider candidates has staying power remains to be seen.

“Is this a summer affair?” Schmidt said. “Will caucus goers say, ‘This was really fun but now it’s time to get back to my serious commitment to someone else’? And we don’t know if that will happen. We’re all very tense.”

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