Shortly after Donald Trump entered the presidential race at the end of June, he rocketed to the front of presidential polls. This was true both nationally and in the earliest states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, and remained true despite a series of gaffes and controversies that many expected would bring Trump down. It seemed like he could defy gravity.
But two new polls from Iowa are our first clear sign that Trump is indeed mortal — they show that Trump has lost his lead in the state to Ben Carson. One, by Quinnipiac, shows Carson up 8 percentage points, and the other, by Bloomberg and the highly respected Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer, shows him up by 9.
Indeed, Carson may have passed Trump weeks ago. The only other poll of Iowa Republicans this month also showed Carson taking the lead, but since it was sponsored by the Club for Growth, a group feuding with Trump, it was interpreted with caution. Now, though, it looks like the first of a trend, as you can see at HuffPost Pollster:
However, Trump still leads in nearly all recent national polls, as well as in the early voting states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. And the prospect of a Carson victory in Iowa isn’t too much of a comfort to GOP elites — like Trump, he has never held elected office, makes a lot of controversial statements, and is viewed as likely to lose the general election.
Still, this first indication that Trump can in fact lose his poll lead will reassure elites who were growing increasingly nervous that he could win.
Can Carson lock down the evangelical vote?
The key to winning the Republican Iowa caucuses is winning the evangelical vote. Though evangelical or born-again Christians make up about a quarter of the state’s population, they made up 57 percent of GOP caucus attendees in 2012 and 60 percent in 2008, according to entrance polls.
The evangelical bloc powered Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — two candidates with strong ties to the religious right but hardly anyone else — to victory in those years. Of course, neither won the nomination, but the Iowa wins quickly elevated them to top-tier status in the race.
And one of the major questions of this year’s contest has been whom these voters would break for. Would they support Ted Cruz? Bobby Jindal? Might they even look past Trump’s lack of religiosity and back him?
For now, it appears they really like what they see in Carson. Selzer’s poll finds that he’s now drawing a third of evangelical support, the best of any candidate. And, far from hurting him, the various controversial statements he’s made might even be helping him — more than 70 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers liked his statements that Obamacare was the worst thing since slavery, that a Muslim maybe shouldn’t be president, and that gun control helped lead to the Holocaust:
Carson is only vulnerable on two of these topics — having no experience in foreign policy, and having “conducted research on tissue from aborted fetuses.” Most likely GOP caucus-goers surveyed said they found those traits unattractive in a candidate. Even there, though, sizable percentages of voters don’t seem to mind.
It remains to be seen whether Carson has the campaign apparatus necessary to transform his current popularity in Iowa into a victory. (And we should, of course, remember that all four recent Iowa caucus winners — Rick Santorum in 2012, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in 2008, and John Kerry in 2004 — surged in the polls extremely late.) But for now, being the first candidate to dethrone Donald Trump is a pretty impressive accomplishment.