INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Feeling a deep and personal sense of betrayal by their elected officials in Washington, many Republican voters are seeking a candidate marked by the absence of political experience on their resume. But in the contest between the GOP’s two unconventional frontrunners – Donald Trump and Ben Carson – it may be Carson’s measured demeanor that makes him the more durable of the two figures in the GOP field.
Participants in a focus group of Republican voters in Indianapolis Tuesday night noted Trump’s “strong” style but also described him as “divisive,” “loud,” and “self-serving.” Ten out of 12 participants in the group, which was conducted on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said that Trump would divide the country - not unite it. And eight of the 12 said that a President Trump could jeopardize respect for America around the globe.
“I like what he says, but not how he says it,” said Ann Barber, 64, of Indianapolis.
The words used to describe Carson, on the other hand, included “thoughtful,” “wise,” “intelligent,” “gentleman,” and “moral.”
“I think he can bring the country together where Obama failed,” said Michael Price, 68, of Plainfield. “Obama turned black against white, rich against poor. I think Carson can bring them all together.”
“He’s lived in every class and he can relate to every class,” added Christopher Berry, 50, of Pittsboro. “He’s a role model for people born in poverty. He’s a good honest person.”
Former HP chief Carly Fiorina also received high marks from many participants, who called her “intelligent” and a “leader.”
Asked which candidate could best unite the country, half cited Carson, while four mentioned Fiorina. Three in the group believed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could best bring the nation together. Only one named Trump.
Pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the focus group, said that the participants were strikingly united over their antipathy for official Washington. “They’re looking to break the mold, they’re looking to clean house, so their respect and love for the outsider is really based upon what they don’t like rather than what they do like.”
Participants almost universally described the state of the country as bleak. Calling the nation’s outlook “disjointed,” “stagnant,” “confusing” and “depressing,” they said the lion’s share of the blame falls upon Republican leaders in Washington D.C.
“America doesn’t want a politician. We’re sick of politicians,” said Marenda Babcock, 60, of Greenfield. “We did what we were supposed to do. We wrote the letters, we made the phone calls, and they didn’t listen.”
The chief beneficiary of that disappointment has appeared to be Trump, who has enjoyed a three-month stay atop national polls fueled in part by his constant needling of the establishment intelligentsia.
But while Trump, who leads in this week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the Republican field with 25% support, won some praise from the group for his shoot-from-the-hip style, many expressed doubt about how his demeanor would play if he actually occupied the White House.
“He’s calling everybody idiots,” said Joe Butera, 23, who said he supports the real estate mogul but acknowledged that his blunt style could rub some U.S. allies the wrong way.
Participants also dismissed the idea that experience in the political arena would be a boon to a commander-in-chief navigating a complicated world.
“They can have people underneath them who can be able to help,” said Tammy Horsthemke, 53, of Indianapolis.
Added Butera: “They may not have experience in politics twisting arms and stuff, but they may have experience in the business world or other places, twisting arms to get things done.”
Rubio fared the best of the more traditional GOP candidates, with several participants naming him as a unifying figure who would fare well in the general election. (Rubio was also frequently namechecked as a potential vice president; asked to assign a superhero character to each GOP contender, Robin - Batman’s sidekick - was widely agreed upon as a good match for the youthful Florida senator.)
Jeb Bush, on the other hand, won little praise from the group, with many deriding him for overdependence on his family name.
“We are just tired of politicians in general. They don’t keep their word, their morals are loose. they don’t have values.” said Shonda Sonnefield, 40, of Camby, Ind. “We are just ready for someone who has not been in that world.”
Hart, the pollster, noted after the focus group that voters seemed to perceive Carson’s unconventional campaign schedule and low-key mannerisms as a calming influence, despite what many have branded as incendiary comments about Muslims and gun rights.
“Ben Carson becomes a reassuring, soothing voice. Donald Trump becomes the dissident, concerning voice,” he said. “They love the strength, they hate the risk. They are drawn to the flame but as they get close to it, they shy away because they recognize that, as president, he’s going to create more problems than he’s going to solve.”
But Trump’s defenders said that their favored candidate will get results for Americans, no matter whose feelings are bruised along the way.
Said Trump backer Lorinda Phelps of Indianapolis: “I can look over him being a jerk sometimes, as long as what he’s doing for the country is going to better my standard of living and my children’s.”