Ben Carson has surged into the lead of the Republican presidential race, getting support from 29 percent of GOP primary voters, according to a brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.The people who told us that Trump would fade as the caucuses and primaries approached feel vindicated -- except that they also told us that this would happen as Republican voters became more "serious" about the contest, and switch their allegiances to more "serious" candidates. If Ben Carson is in the lead, that's not what's happening.
That's the highest percentage any GOP candidate has obtained so far in the survey.
Carson's 29 percent is followed by Donald Trump at 23 percent, Marco Rubio at 11 percent, Ted Cruz at 10 percent and Jeb Bush at 8 percent. These findings are similar to a New York Times/CBS poll released last week, which also showed Carson in first place in the national GOP contest.
Trump isn't fading because Republican voters are getting tired of the circus act -- he's fading because he's not doing the circus act very well these days. When was peak Trump? It was when he was attacking Mexicans and John McCain and Megyn Kelly. He's been mellower lately. He's been less outrageous in the last two debates. This fall he's done a series of interviews in which he's tried to demonstrate that he's a nice guy, not an angry bigot. A couple of weeks ago, his campaign spoon-fed the press a series of stories about the prominence of his daughter Ivanka and other women in his businesses, as a way of blunting charges that he's a sexist.
All of this was a huge mistake. Carson has stolen his thunder with outrageous comments about whether a Muslim should be allowed to run for president and whether privately owned guns could have stopped or slowed down the Nazis. Carson has claimed that mass shooting victims are cowards for not rushing shooters. Now he's out there on the hustings proudly embracing creationism.
The GOP voter base still wants fist-shaking rage. That's why Ted Cruz is getting a bounce from his denunciation of the CNBC debate. That's why Marco Rubio is trying to reposition himself as an angry young man incensed by liberal media bias. That's why Carly Fiorina -- who had a momentary poll bump when she positioned herself as Planned Parenthood's worst nightmare -- is out there on the trail promoting her beef with hosts of The View who insulted her after last week's debate.
This is what's going to continue to drive the race, not "electability" as sane people define it and not "seriousness" about issues. To Republican voters, experience isn't a plus -- the two front-runners are non-politicians, and the two politicians who are gaining ground are 44-year-old first-term senators.
It's conceivable that Rubio and Cruz will eventually supplant Trump and Carson. But Carson, unlike Trump, clearly intends to keep saying whatever he feels like saying, and that's why the base loves him. And a few more bad polls are probably going to lead to "let Donald be Donald" talk in the Trump campaign. If he's smart, he'll start being an obnoxious jerk again.
So I think it's still a two-man race. I don't think Republican voters are at all interested in getting "serious" as we would define that word -- in fact, I think they believe that their rejection of traditional candidates is precisely how they're getting "serious" about voting: They're rejecting the system and arguing for throwing the bums out, after what they think is a lot of serious thought.