Republican regulars, veterans of conventional politics, are pondering the unthinkable: What if neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson fades? Which would be a stronger candidate? Would either govern if he won?
Neither outcome would be welcome to more established Republicans and most still doubt it will occur, especially with a heightened emphasis on national security after the terror attacks in Paris.
In conversations with 10 of these insiders, most before the Paris outrage, they gave the odds of a victory by Carson or Trump at around 30 percent, less than probable, better than a long shot. As of today, they have better chances of winning at least one of the initial nominating contests, Carson in Iowa and Trump in New Hampshire.
Both are outsiders who’ve never run for political office and are playing to the right wing. Yet they couldn’t be more different. Trump, a 69-year-old billionaire, is a bombastic real estate and entertainment dealmaker with a malleable political philosophy who has stirred some racial animosities.
Carson, 64, is black and deeply religious. He rose from inner-city poverty to become the world’s most renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. He has some unusual advisers, such as Robert Dees, a virulently anti-Muslim retired general.
Prominent Republicans such as former Sen. Bill Brock cringe at either choice. “Carson lacks the experience to be an executive or to look at the differences between Sunni and Shia,” the former party chairman said. “But Trump would be more of a disaster; he would drive away Hispanics and other minorities as we did in 1964.”
Carson is seen as the most likely to drop out or crater. Politics is a new and strange arena for him. Yet if he stays in, there’s a sense that he’d be a stronger candidate than Trump over the long run. He has higher favorable ratings and lower negatives than others, especially Trump.
“He’s the likable one,” said David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association whose experience in national politics dates to the 1976 Ronald Reagan campaign. He is neutral this time.
Surprisingly, most of these Republicans, including some with electoral experience, say Carson might be a more formidable opponent for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Quinnipiac polls over the past six weeks show that in a general election matchup, Carson would beat Clinton in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Democrat, however, narrowly defeats Trump; both their survey and a CNN poll show the same outcomes nationally.
Who would be the better president? Given what they view as a Hobson’s choice, a few of the Republican regulars, who requested anonymity, would opt for Trump. Unlike Carson, he has run a big organization, played in the political world and is no stranger to the art of dealmaking that is a hallmark of effective governance. Of Carson, one of these insiders says that voters wouldn’t go for his Mr. Rogers-like personality.
Most members of this informal group have a different view. They worry about unilateral acts by the mercurial Trump: deporting 11 million immigrants, seizing the oil fields in Iraq or starting a trade war with China.
Keene, noting the conservative complaints that President Barack Obama has used executive orders to exceed his constitutional authority on issues such as immigration, asked, “Can you imagine Donald Trump saying the Constitution is more important than I am?”
Combined, Carson and Trump are winning about half the Republican vote now, but with decidedly different followers: The doctor is the darling of white evangelicals who comprise about a quarter of the general-election vote and a much larger chunk of the Republican primary electorate. The entrepreneur rallies much of the tea party brigade, along with other angry, disaffected white working-class whites.
Ralph Reed, the leading political strategist of the religious right, said there’s one other candidate who is “well- suited” to inherit both of those constituencies: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
That’s scant solace for establishment Republicans.