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Ben Carson, The Other Republican Outsider On The Rise

Presidential candidate Ben Carson attracted a large crowd at the Iowa State Fair last month.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Presidential candidate Ben Carson attracted a large crowd at the Iowa State Fair last month.

Donald Trump isn't the only political outsider who's been having a good summer. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is gaining in several polls — especially in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where evangelical voters play a big role.

The latest Iowa Poll, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, showed Carson in second place at 18 percent, behind Trump's 23 percent among likely GOP caucusgoers. Carson is also a popular second choice and was the best-liked candidate in the GOP primary.

On the stump, Carson often talks about his belief in God and his opposition to abortion. He has compared it to slavery and accused Planned Parenthood of targeting African-Americans.

At the Iowa State Fair last month, Carson stopped by the Iowa Right to Life booth, where anti-abortion activists were handing out tiny scale models of 12-week-old fetuses to fairgoers.

Carson looks at a display of fetus models at the "Iowa Right to Life" booth at the Iowa State Fair.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Carson looks at a display of fetus models at the "Iowa Right to Life" booth at the Iowa State Fair.

"That really does bring it home for people, doesn't it?" Carson said.

Carson's message — and his rags-to-riches story — seems to be resonating with conservative Iowa voters. He talks of growing up in Detroit with a hard-working single mother who pushed him to earn top grades in school. For that, he told fairgoers, his classmates called him a nerd and an "Uncle Tom."

"But I would always shut them up by saying, 'Let's see what you're doing in 20 years, and let's see what I'm doing in 20 years,' " Carson said, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

When he graduated, Carson says his peers voted him, "Most Likely to Succeed."

"Which means they knew what was important," he said. "They were too lazy and trifling to do it themselves."

Carson went on to a career as a pediatric neurosurgeon famous for his pioneering work to separate conjoined twins — an impressive resume, however unconventional for a presidential candidate. He has never held elective office.

He's one of several Republicans who is appealing to Iowa evangelicals, said Bob Vander Plaats of the conservative Christian group, The Family Leader. He calls Carson a "breath of fresh air" and the "essence of the American Dream."

"First of all, being raised by a single mom, who was raised in what a lot of people would call the wrong side of the tracks, less than an ideal environment — but his mom put extremely high expectations on him," Vander Plaats said. "He studied. He worked hard, and he pursued his dream, and he was leading in his field of expertise."

Vander Plaats added that Carson's performance in last month's Republican primary debate helped vault him near the top of the polls. He said Iowans are also tired of the political establishment, as evidenced by the polling strength of Trump, Carson and another newcomer, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

"They're tired of politics as usual," he said. "They're looking for real leadership with real life experience, and not someone who was groomed in the Washington, D.C., machine."

Ben Carson poses for a photo with a fairgoer at the Iowa State Fair in August.
Charlie Riedel / AP
Ben Carson poses for a photo with a fairgoer at the Iowa State Fair in August.

Brad Pellett of Atlantic, Iowa, said Carson's outsider status is appealing,

"I like the fact that he seems like a very genuine, down to earth, honest individual," Pellett said.

Pellett said he worries about his three children's future, and he likes the way Carson talks about reining in the federal debt. Pellett isn't worried about Carson's lack of political experience; he says Carson is smart, and he could put together a team of experts to help him get things done.

"I think we have to get out of the political realm to solve the political problems that we've got," he said.

Pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the Iowa poll, said when it comes to politicians, "the mood is sour" among voters, and that's allowing for the success of political outsiders right now.

"For every candidate, their supporters were more likely to say, they'll figure it out once they're in office," Selzer said. "So for now they're kind of voting on gut instinct, that this is the person who has the right approach, and the positions will take care of themselves."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.