Iowa Conservatives Lovin’ the Carson Craziness

With the highly reputable Ann Selzer weighing in with a new Iowa poll, it’s pretty clear this week’s earlier Quinnipiac poll of likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa wasn’t an outlier: Ben Carson has moved past Donald Trump into the top horse-race spot, with incredibly high approval ratios to boot.

The two polls have a lot of other confidence-boosting similarities, showing Ted Cruz doing relatively well, even as Carly Fiorina drops like a rock into the mid-single-digits and Jeb Bush, despite heavy Super-PAC advertising, stays in the same marginal territory at 5%.

What the Selzer poll adds to our understanding of the Iowa dynamics is two things: first, an analysis of where Ben Carson’s support is coming from (the simple answer is conservative evangelicals, a third of whom now favor the retired neurosurgeon); and second a battery of questions in which various provocative and/or borderline insane things Carson has said are posed to respondents who are then asked if they find each question “very attractive,” “mostly attractive,” “mostly unattractive,” or “very unattractive.” Combining the two positive reactions, 81% of likely Republican caucus-goers dig Carson’s characterization of Obamacare as “the worst thing since slavery;” 77% are fine with his argument that Hitler might have been seriously slowed down by an armed population; and 73% seem to agree with a ban on Muslims serving as president. Now it could be that poll respondents inclined to like the good doctor (his approval ratio in the Selzer poll is 84/12) might semi-automatically answer favorably to questions about him. But I dunno: they were alert and discriminating enough to give a big thumbs-down to his involvement in fetal tissue research.

So we are left with the impression that a growing awareness of the crazy things Ben Carson says and believes in might not be as big a problem for him as we might have imagined. It should be recalled, of course, that this is a constituency that last year fervently embraced Joni Ernst as the embodiment of sturdy Iowa folk virtues despite (or for some, because of) her record of subscription to all sorts of wacky beliefs, up to and including the Bircher Agenda 21 conspiracy theory.

One element of Carson’s appeal that you cannot find in the raw numbers is that despite his sudden and recent lurch into politics, his “story” has for years been very familiar to conservative evangelicals via his many books and inspirational speaking engagements (as Sarah Posner has pointed out). In that sense he’s a bit like Sarah Palin, who may have been a completely unknown figure to the MSM when John McCain tapped her as his running-mate in 2008, but was already a major celebrity in the anti-choice movement. So comparisons of him to Herman Cain as a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon who will fade the moment the novelty wears off don’t ring particularly true right now.

If this week’s Iowa polling represents good news for Carson and Cruz and bad news for Trump, Fiorina, and Bush, it could represent fatal news for one candidate, Bobby Jindal, who came it at 2% in the Selzer poll and 3% in Quinnipiac’s. It’s looking increasingly like the 6% he showed in a September NBC/WSJ survey was an outlier rather than an indication that his paid media blitz in Iowa was paying off with a surge. Sure, in theory Bobby could climb back from the brink of the political grave if Carson’s support among evangelicals fades and Huck or Santorum don’t beat him to the punch. But he’s the candidate who could most use a break or a big bag of money right now.

UPDATE: Selzer did not ask Iowa Republicans how “attractive” they found Carson’s plan to replace Medicare and Medicaid with government-subsidized health savings accounts, but this could be the issue, ironically, that is most dangerous to the famous surgeon.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.