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Donald Trump is right now leading in polls of the Republican presidential race despite the fact that he has never held elected office before.
But while Trump is hardly a conventional presidential hopeful, two of the other rising “outsider” candidates, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, are even more unique than Trump: No African-American or woman has ever won even a single Republican caucus or primary.
Carson has now risen to second in many polls, just behind Trump, and Fiorina has surged enough to qualify for this week's GOP presidential debate in California. They have become relevant enough candidates in the race to draw insults from Trump, who last week suggested that Fiorina is not physically attractive and that Carson, a world-renowned surgeon, had been an “okay” doctor.
Trump, despite his bombastic style and controversial views on issues like immigration, in a lot of other ways fits the Republican Party. Trump has opted to skip the traditional step of running for mayor, governor or senator before seeking the presidency, but many of the most important figures in the Republican Party, such as Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, are white men like Trump who entered politics after successful, lucrative careers in business.
White men are one of the core voting blocs for the Republican Party. According to exit polls, 54 percent of white men backed Romney in 2012, compared to 41 percent for President Obama.
And while Trump is one-of-a-kind in many ways, candidates with similar profiles to him have won GOP primaries before. Pat Buchanan, who ran as a populist skeptical of immigration, and Steve Forbes, another wealthy businessman, both won a few states during their 1996 presidential runs before losing to then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Like Trump, neither Forbes nor Buchanan had ever held elective office before running for president.
There is a history of blacks and white women seeking the GOP nomination, but they have not been as successful as Buchanan and Forbes. Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith ran in 1964, finishing second in the Illinois primary but far behind in other states. Elizabeth Dole’s campaign in 2000 also went nowhere, even though she had deep government experience, having run the Labor and Transportation Departments. She dropped out before the Iowa caucuses were held.
Sarah Palin flirted with a 2012 presidential run and Michele Bachmann did enter the race. Both are very controversial figures and neither got much support from the Republican Party.
Fiorina, despite gains in recent polls, is struggling like Dole and Bachmann to draw much support from the party establishment. She has raised little money and received no endorsements from Republican members of Congress. And while she is conservative, Fiorina's positions on issues (for example, she does not favor ending birthright citizenship) and political style more closely mirror Jeb Bush than Trump, limiting her ability to appeal to voters who like the real estate mogul.
Carson has been at times likened to two previous black GOP candidates, Alan Keyes (1996, 2000) and Herman Cain (2012), neither of whom ever emerged as serious contenders for the nomination. That comparison is too simplistic, in that Carson’s great success is medicine is unique among candidates of any race.
But like Keyes and Cain, Carson has little experience in government and a reputation for controversial remarks. Carson has said Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in America "since slavery" and suggested that prison sex is evidence that homosexuality is a choice because people go "into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay."
The two African-Americans who potentially could have been real strong contenders to win the GOP nomination, Colin Powell in 1996 and Condi Rice in 2012, both opted against running. Powell and Rice, while not having been held elective office, had both served as national security adviser and secretary of state, giving them the kind of credentials of more traditional candidates.
For an African-American candidate, the lack of black voters in the GOP robs them of a potential base of support. In Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and Obama's 2008 run, African-American voters overwhelming backed them, helping them win states in the South where the Democratic electorate is disproportionately black.
Women are more likely to be Democrats, and Hillary Clinton is actively targeting them in her 2016 run. Clinton is the only woman from either party to have ever won a formal primary, although Shirley Chisholm, an African-American woman, won a 1972 Democratic primary in New Jersey in which no delegates were allocated.
Identity does not define all politics, as Obama showed by winning the caucuses in overwhelmingly-white Iowa in 2008. And Carson and Fiorina are running in an America where political leadership is more diverse than ever, in part because of intentional efforts by GOP leaders.
Influential Republicans tapped Michael Steele, who is black, to be the party’s chairman in 2009, and pushed hard to make sure Tim Scott, another African-American, was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina in 2012 after Jim Demint stepped down. Two Republican women, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, are likely to be strongly considered to be the running mate of whoever wins the GOP primary.
And Fiorina and Carson are in a Republican primary that also includes the Indian-American Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are both Cuban-American.
But Carson and Fiorina are trying to overcome a long history stacked against them. America of course had never elected a black person president until Obama in 2008. But it had elected plenty of senators and governors, showing an obvious path for Cruz, Jindal and Rubio.
The last person to win the presidency without holding a previous elective office was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, seven years after he had lead the Allied forces to victory in World War II.