Ben Carson has enthralled evangelical conservatives in his surge to the top of Republican presidential polls, but his support stretches well beyond that key demographic, with voters saying they see him as a palatable maverick capable of shaking up Washington without plowing it over.
“He is so genuine. He speaks the truth with respect and is such a wise man,” said Cynthia Wilson, a Carson supporter from Brentwood, New Hampshire. “For what he doesn’t know, I trust he will put intelligent people around him to do a great job running the country.”
New Hampshire is the second-least religious state, according to voter exit polls, and Ms. Wilson wouldn’t classify herself as an evangelical voter. She is, however, sick of putting professional politicians in office only to see nothing change in Washington.
Donald Trump, the real estate mogul battling Mr. Carson for the top spot in the polls, is not as trustworthy in her estimation.
“Donald Trump, he scares me. I feel like he’s too passionate in some ways. I don’t think he has a level head,” said Ms. Wilson. “The most important thing for me is the character of a person, and Ben Carson has that.”
Mr. Carson has taken the lead over Mr. Trump in polling in Iowa, where evangelical voters made up 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2012. The surveys show much of Mr. Carson’s boost has come from winning over those religious conservatives.
But the latest CBS/New York Times national poll suggests the retired neurosurgeon’s support runs deeper. He leads Mr. Trump among women, is virtually tied among men and performs well among conservative Republicans and those who identify as tea partyers. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, leads Mr. Carson among moderates and those without college degrees, the poll found.
Voters, evangelical or not, say they think Mr. Carson would make principled decisions and, unlike Mr. Trump, is humble enough to take guidance and try to unite the Republican Party, not divide it further.
“Ben Carson, I feel like can listen to everybody’s ideas and be a uniter,” said Denny Burk, a Carson supporter from Wever, Iowa, who is registered as an independent. “This country is the most divided I’ve ever seen. Look at the racism, Republicans and Democrats being at each other’s throats, the one-percenters versus everybody else. Everywhere you look, people are trying to divide us as a nation. United we stand and divided we fall, and I feel Ben Carson could be a really good uniter.”
Mr. Burk, who is pro-choice and considers himself more liberal on social issues, said he admires Mr. Carson’s intelligence and humility: “He doesn’t know everything, but is willing to go out and get the people that do know. I trust in him, and I trust in that.”
Still, there is little doubt that his religious faith is a major part of the reason for his ascendance in Iowa, where the most recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 28 percent of Republican caucus-goers were looking for a nominee who shares their values — and 84 percent said Mr. Carson did so. The next-closest candidate was Marco Rubio at 68 percent.
Mr. Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, is not shy about his faith guiding his principles.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he quoted a Bible verse to explain his political approach: “Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said in Proverbs 11:14, ‘In a multitude of counselors is safety.’ If the wisest man who ever lived thought that, I certainly believe that,” he said.
“Where Trump is winning with white working-class males, because they like his boisterous, over-the-top machismo, Carson’s main support seems to be older, white, rural evangelicals, who like his more mild and soft-spoken demeanor,” said Dennis Goldford, author of “The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics and the First Amendment.”
While attending the Faith and Freedom event in Iowa, Mr. Goldford, a professor at Drake University, met a woman who supported Mr. Carson because, she said, “he is a smart man who knows how to solve problems” but whose real appeal is that “if he doesn’t know what to do, he lays the spirit of Christ over him and makes his decision that way.”
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is seen by many as trusting only in himself. This image was perpetuated in July when Mr. Trump said he has never asked God’s forgiveness.
“Why do I have to repent or ask forgiveness if I’m not making mistakes?” he asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
After falling behind Mr. Carson in polling, Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Carson’s religion.
“I’m Presbyterian,” Mr. Trump said at an event Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Attacks like those don’t have any effect on Mr. Carson’s base or ability to attract followers, Mr. Goldford said.
“Even though Carson is a different religious denomination, he says the right things and says them in a very non-Trump way that appeals to many folks,” Mr. Goldford said.
Mr. Carson regularly tops the polls when voters are asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of the candidates and is a popular second-choice pick as well.
But political analysts predict Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump will fade well before the nomination is decided.
“I ultimately am guessing the Republican Party will elect someone who has prior experience in government, that the support that Trump and Carson have isn’t going to carry them through to the nomination,” said Bill Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University. “But it’s only fair to say I’m surprised they’ve gotten as far as they have. There’s always something new in every race.”