Many S.C. Republicans look ready to nominate a political outsider in their hopes of reclaiming the White House next year.
South Carolina GOP primary voters are throwing more support behind the three non-politicians in the Republican field – New York business mogul Donald Trump, retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former California chief executive Carly Fiorina – than voters in other early primary states and nationwide.
Trump, Carson and Fiorina combined have the backing of about 6 in 10 S.C. Republican voters in recent polls, according to polling data collected by Real Clear Politics. The three pull more than half the support of GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The novices are trying to break a six-decade streak to get into the White House. The last candidate elected president without serving previously in any political office was Dwight Eisenhower, the former Army general who won in 1952.
So far this year, however, previous experience in elected office is not helping candidates who were expected to have stronger support in South Carolina, the state with the South’s first primary.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two presidents and the leader in S.C. polls earlier this year, stands a distant third in Palmetto State polls, trailing Trump and Carson.
U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida are trying to keep their places just ahead of Fiorina, who is expected to surge in the polls after being dubbed a winner in the GOP debate Wednesday.
The reason behind the popularity of the non-politicians lies 475 miles north of Columbia.
87% S.C. Republicans who said they are angry or dissatisfied with Washington, according to a CBS/YouGov poll released last week
Gary Krantz, a 63-year-old Columbia business manager who backs Carson, is one of those dissatisfied voters.
Current officeholders have messed up the United States, working to get favors for their friends, Krantz said.
“(Carson is) not a politician per se, so, therefore, he doesn’t have an allegiance to a political party or a lobbyist or anything like that,” Krantz said. “He just wants to do what’s right and heal America.”
However, backers of GOP candidates with experience in elected office, as well as many pundits, say the non-politicians are fads who will fall away when the primary season nears its Feb. 1 start with the Iowa caucuses.
“There have been a lot of presidents of Labor Day who aren’t even in the race when it came to voting (in the later primaries),” said Mike Murphy, who heads the pro-Bush political action committee Right to Rise.
“They’re noise meters essentially.”
Turning anger into votes
S.C. Republicans made noise in 2012 when they ended the state’s 32-year streak of voting for the eventual GOP nominee, opting for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney.
Ahead of the 2016 primary, polling numbers show S.C. GOP voters once again seem ready to rebel against the establishment.
By a 2-to-1 margin, Palmetto State Republicans said they would rather have a president from outside government than one with political experience, in a Monmouth University survey last month.
And, in a good sign for Trump and Fiorina, more than twice as many S.C. Republican voters said they want a president who has had success in business rather than success in politics, according to the CBS News/YouGov poll.
On Friday, Carson and Fiorina received the largest applause from thousands of conservatives gathered at a Heritage Action forum in a Greenville arena.
Helping fuel this revolt of sorts is the growth of social media, which has freed candidates from having to rely on support from the more establishment political parties.
Through social media – especially Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – the political outsiders can generate a lot of free publicity. Their supporters also can spread messages quickly, University of South Carolina political scientist Laura Woliver said.
But the early success for Trump, Carson and Fiorina does not guarantee that voters will choose them when they reach the ballot box. South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary is Feb. 20.
37% GOP voters nationally who said they have made up their minds on who they will back in the primaries, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week
And if one of the non-politicians wins the Republican nomination, he or she could face a hard sell in the November 2016 general election.
A majority of registered voters – Democrats, independents and Republicans combined – say they would rather have a president with political experience than an outsider, according to a poll from ABC News/Washington Post.
“Anger in September doesn’t always turn into voting,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
Also, the non-politicians, especially Trump, are attracting some people who have not gone to the polls in some time, meaning the outsider candidates will have to build effective grassroots networks to ensure their supporters actually vote.
“People who are very rah-rah about a candidate might have forgotten to register to vote,” USC’s Woliver said.
‘Looking for authenticity’
The story of the 2016 campaign, thus far, has been Trump.
For all his fame, the billionaire real estate developer, author of “The Art of the Deal” and former reality TV host of the “Celebrity Apprentice” never had run for office before announcing for president in June.
Political observers were surprised that Trump skyrocketed in the polls soon after joining the race. They are more surprised when Trump remained the front-runner despite making comments – bashing POWs, immigrants and Fiorina’s appearance – that might have doomed other candidates.
But Trump hit the right spot with angry GOP voters.
His brash attitude – speak first and worry about the consequences later – fits into the frustration of Republican voters who feel the GOP-dominated Congress has not done enough to stand up to Democratic President Barack Obama, Huffmon said.
They’re looking for authenticity, and they feel like they’re being denied that in Washington.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon
Those GOP voters are so desperate for authenticity that they are willing to overlook Trump’s embrace of liberal policies and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in the past, Huffmon said.
Trump’s years as a reality TV star also give him an advantage in the 16-candidate GOP field – even as a political first-timer.
But Trump will have to keep his campaign together. He struggled last week.
In Wednesday’s debate, Trump was faulted for his vagueness. Thursday, he was criticized for failing to correct a questioner in New Hampshire who called President Barack Obama a Muslim. Friday, he canceled an appearance before thousands of conservatives at a Greenville forum, citing a pending business transaction.
Still, Huffmon said, “You can no longer dismiss him as a flash-in-the-pan, fringe candidate. He has had enough staying power. He’s clearly tapped into anger.”
The doctor and the fighting lady
Carson has the opposite problem of Trump.
The soft-spoken brain surgeon needs to keep voters’ interest, especially when he is competing with Trump’s loud megaphone and accompanying media attention, Huffmon said.
But Carson seems to be getting more comfortable on the campaign trail, addressing crowds with more ease.
“Ben Carson can turn a phrase,” Huffmon said.
Carson’s quiet demeanor also appears to be paying off. Carson has risen to second among the GOP candidates, trailing Trump.
Fiorina might not be among the top three candidates, but she has joined the upper tier in the early primary states, including tied for fifth in South Carolina, according to Real Clear Politics data.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive is gaining ground because of her smoothness in talking policy specifics – and her fierce responses to Trump’s criticisms.
Fiorina’s comeback to Trump’s knock about the attractiveness of her face drew the largest applause at Wednesday night’s debate.
Those retorts are exactly what Fiorina needs, USC’s Woliver said.
Voters want to see women candidates push back, she said.
“Voters don’t want them to be a lady,” Woliver said. “They want a fighter.”
Everyone wants to be the outsider
Still, some debate what is driving voters to nontraditional politicians.
Some experts question whether anger at Washington, which is higher than usual, is driving more of the attraction to the non-mainstream candidates than the presidential outsiders themselves.
“It’s more an uneasiness with the establishment than it is a fascination of the outlier,” said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman from South Carolina. “It’s a combination of frustrations with the economy, the Middle East and the inability of Congress to reach any firm decisions.”
Establishment Democrats have their own insurgency issue, too. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and self-avowed socialist from Vermont running for the Democratic nomination, is closing the gap on front-runner Clinton.
The upshot appears to be that the outsider label is vital in the 2016 race.
Even establishment candidates are using it.
The leader of Bush’s PAC said the former Florida governor, the son of one president and the brother of another, is an outsider, too.
“He’s been no part of the train wreck in Washington,” Murphy said. “He’s a governor who’s actually done stuff.
“Frankly, I think, over time, some of that outside Washington interest is going to accrue to help Jeb.”
The GOP’s non-politician pols
A trio of Republican candidates who never have held elected office account for a majority of support from voters in recent GOP presidential polls in early primary states.
Ben Carson, 64
Education: Bachelor’s, Yale University; medical degree, University of Michigan
Experience: Directed pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for nearly three decades. Completed the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the head in 1987.
Carly Fiorina, 61
Education: Bachelor’s, Stanford University; master’s of business administration, University of Maryland; master’s of management, MIT
Experience: Worked – and was fired – as chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard and co-founded the One Woman Initiative that later merged with Opportunity International, which provides financing and banking to clients in the developing world. Ran for U.S. Senate in California in 2010 but lost 52-42 to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who painted Fiorina as a corporate executive who exported U.S. jobs to China.
Donald Trump, 69
Education: Bachelor’s, University of Pennsylvania
Experience: Real estate developer, starred and co-produced “The Apprentice” reality TV show, author
S.C. Republican Polls
Three non-politicians – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – rank among the top six in polls of S.C. GOP primary voters, joining a former governor and a pair of U.S. senators in the lead. Average recent poll results for the state’s Republican presidential primary, according to Real Clear Politics:
1. Trump: 34.3%
2. Carson: 19%
3. Jeb Bush: 6.7%
4. Ted Cruz: 5.7%
5. Marco Rubio: 4.3%
5. Fiorina: 4.3%