Don’t bet on Ben Carson in Iowa

Although the famed surgeon is having a popularity surge of late, it won’t last. Especially when Donald Trump is doling out the praise-of-death to the “soft-spoken” doctor.

Jason Johnson, The Root | 9/3/2015, 10:26 a.m.
Although the famed surgeon is having a popularity surge of late, it won’t last. Especially when Donald Trump is doling ...
Kids pose for a photo in front of the campaign bus of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson Aug. 16, 2015, after church services at Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Carson attended Sunday church services before campaigning at the Iowa State Fair. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Trivia time: Name anyone who has been elected president of the United States without having served in any political office before running.

There aren’t many.

In the 200-plus-year history of the U.S., there have only been three presidents who were never on the stump before swearing an oath to protect the United States: George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. So history tells us that unless Dr. Ben Carson manages to win a war sometime in the next seven months, he probably won’t be elected president of the United States.

But in a year where you have GOP contenders aiming for the White House by alienating the Hispanic voting bloc, former “contenders” suggesting building a wall against Canadians, and political legacies saying women’s health just isn’t a big deal, it would seem like anything is possible. Which explains why Carson is now a close second, or tied, with Donald Trump in Iowa caucus polls.

However, before we start marveling over Carson’s surge or labeling him a contender, it’s important to note that his newfound success is more about the field than it is about anything Carson is bringing to the table.

A month ago, the Carson campaign was not in good shape. How bad was it? As recently as June, Carson’s super PACs were bickering with one another, he was languishing in the polls and he had made a series of comments about #BlackLivesMatter that weren’t strong enough for GOP conservatives, but weren’t clear enough to engage African-American voters, either. In a New York Times puff piece that was ostensibly supposed to introduce the world to Ben Carson, he was described in the following milquetoast terms:

"Carson is soft-spoken and often talks with his eyes half closed, frequently punctuating his sentences with a small laugh, even if the humor of his statement is not readily apparent."

If that were a Tinder description, most voters would swipe left. The former neurosurgeon had a grand total of about six minutes of speaking (out of a 90-minute debate) during the first Republican debate Aug. 6 and didn’t set the world on fire. Yet somehow at the end of August, he’s the GOP primary version of Kanan, left for dead in the smoldering ruins of his campaign, but somehow escaping to live to fight another day. (Sorry if I just spoiled the season finale of "Power" for you.)

There are two typical, political hot takes on why the recent Des Moines Register Poll puts Carson at second to Trump (25 percent to 18 percent, respectively) or why the Monmouth poll has them essentially tied at 22 percent. The Carson campaign would lead you to believe that after months of Carson’s languishing in the polls, his “started from the bottom” narrative from the ghettos of Detroit to being the greatest pediatric neurosurgeon in America has finally caught on.

The other take is that Carson’s recent poll numbers are just a blip on the campaign and will eventually fade. These folks point to the fact that on Aug. 31, 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was at 29 percent and Michele Bachmann was at 18 percent, and they both flamed out in Iowa. Both of these bits of conventional wisdom are missing the full story.