Last fall, the presidential race seemed to be a haven for outsiders.
New York businessman Donald Trump, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson and California businesswoman Carly Fiorina never held public office, but all, at various points and to varying degrees, were tearing up the polls as voters craved something different than the usual political suspects in 2016 GOP presidential race.
Carson held the coveted top spot in polls for a few days in October and November. Fiorina, buoyed by two stellar debate performances in August and September, even occupied second place in the polls for a minute in early fall.
But only Trump has been able to maintain a hold on the top spot, while Carson and Fiorina have become the forgotten outsiders. A major campaign staff shake-up for Carson earlier this month didn’t even merit a mention on Sunday morning television news programs while Fiorina has been polling so low in the single digits that she’s often not even mentioned anymore in stories about the GOP horse race.
According to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of polls, Carson is running a distant fourth in Iowa and nationally and is even further back in New Hampshire. Fiorina, meanwhile, barely cracks the top 10 in Iowa and is in the low single digits nationwide and in New Hampshire. Perhaps most damaging, her flagging poll numbers meant she failed to qualify for Thursday’s prime-time debate stage.
“For both of them, the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have reminded voters that political experience may mean something,” said Lara Brown, associate professor at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University. “When we were focused on domestic messages and the economy, their messages worked, but when the focus shifted to national security, you saw that Republican voters wanted a candidate with some political heft.”
Indeed, Carson’s polling numbers began their precipitous drop in mid-November, just days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, which claimed 130 lives and injured more than 350 people. He hasn’t recovered, falling from between around 15% to 20% support in the days before the attack to 6% to 10% in recent days.
Fiorina never capitalized on the momentum she gained from those good debate performances, falling quickly from a high of just under 12% in the RealClearPollings polling average in early October to the low single digits.
“That’s a very typical pattern in history. You have your moment in the sun and then you fade,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian and history professor at American University. “The last outsider candidate who was nominated was Wendell Willkie in 1940. It’s been a very, very long time.”
Trump has managed to stay atop the polls, Lichtman said, in part because he was a built-in celebrity when he entered the race.
“And he is riding this new wave of anti-establishment and discontent in the Republican Party,” Lichtman said. “He’s co-opted the rhetoric and co-opted that wing of the Republican Party.”
Both Carson and Fiorina are still spending plenty of time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states to hold presidential caucuses or primary elections.
Carson released policy position papers on education and foreign policy this week, calling for a more vigorous investment in the nation’s military and allowing more choice for parents. Fiorina told MSNBC last week that she’s well positioned in New Hampshire.
“Here I am with 33 days to go before the primary, and I’m in the hunt, and this race is very much wide open because, you see, voters, particularly in New Hampshire, think it’s their job to decide how to winnow the field, and how to vet candidates, and who’s going to win,” she said
Her deputy campaign manager, Sarah Isgur Flores, told supporters earlier this month that Fiorina’s ground game would come through in the early voting states and aruged that her boss would be the best to compete against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Carson beefed up his staff last week, hiring A. Larry Ross, a former spokesman for evangelist Billy Graham, to head up his communications team and retired Marine Corp. Col Christopher Bourne to lead his policy staff.
“I have the experience and wisdom for fighting radical Islamic terrorism, defending the homeland, reviving our economy, fixing our healthcare system and restoring faith in our country and in each other,” Carson said in a statement about the new hires.
John Philip Sousa IV, national chairman of the 2016 Committee — the super PAC supporting Carson’s candidacy — acknowledged that Carson’s campaign has hit a rough patch, but said the candidate is still “energized.”
“He is pumped. He is ready to go,” Sousa said. “And I think the country is going to be very surprised by his performance (in the debate) tomorrow night.”
But their optimism is misplaced, said John Hudak, a senior fellow and deputy director the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings Institution.
“Running for president is hard. When you look at even very talented politicians who have been very successful in other races, they struggle when they try to transition to national stage,” he said. “It’s even harder for someone who has never run for office.”
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