Retired right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson took his Republican presidential campaign to Iowa last week, where he delivered a non-traditional message to potential supporters. “I really don’t want to do this, to be honest with you,” Carson said of his national campaign.
As a rule, those aren’t the words a candidate is supposed to use about his quest for the White House – or really any job in any context. “I really don’t want to do this” is one of those messages that tends not to inspire confidence.
A few days later, Carson won the Western Conservative Summit straw poll.
To be sure, I’m generally skeptical about the predictive value of these straw polls, but Carson’s overall strength is also reflected in polling. His national standing has steadily improved in recent months, despite Carson’s complete inability to campaign effectively and/or run an effective organization, and by some measures, he’s running third or fourth nationally in the crowded Republican field.
Byron York, a prominent conservative journalist, reported yesterday that many in the GOP are mystified.
The combination of Carson’s rise and his unorthodox campaign style – Carson’s short-on-specifics stump speech is like no other – has left some of his rivals baffled. “I just don’t get it,” one said in a private conversation recently. “I don’t get it.”
In all candor, I don’t either. Carson, who has never sought or held elected office, continues to prove that he’s simply not up for the job. And yet, the worse the retired doctor performs as a candidate, the more his poll numbers go up.
As we talked about in May, it’s be so much easier to dismiss Ben Carson’s candidacy as a joke if only GOP voters didn’t seem to like the guy so much.
So what’s the actual explanation? In his Washington Examiner piece, York takes a shot at explaining the circumstances that seem to defy explanation.
The simplest answer is that Carson is a really appealing man. Another is that he speaks to the throw-‘em-out strain among conservatives, the same kind of thinking that would be open to a third-party candidate. Yet another is that Carson’s it’s-really-very-simple commonsense approach to complex issues resonates with a significant segment of the party. And finally, as the only black candidate, Carson’s race might have something to do with it; he might appeal to that part of the Republican mind that has been scarred by years of accusations of racism, and also to those who believe the GOP needs a minority candidate to win more minority voters.Finally, Carson projects a serenity and faith that attracts a following. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which he believes that God has guided him not just through his life but to this campaign.
That’s probably one “finally” too many, but nevertheless I don’t have a better explanation.
Part of me assumes that Republican voters have been told repeatedly in recent years that those who’ve entered public service are somehow, almost by definition, unsuited for the presidency. Carson may not be able to present himself as a “regular guy” – how many pediatric neurosurgeons do you know? – but he can credibly say he’s not a politician.
For some voters, that’s a major selling point. Carson knows very little about public policy, seems confused by the basics of current events and how government works, and generally has the attitudes of someone who’s wholly unprepared for national office.
And for many in the GOP base, this is a feature, not a bug, of a compelling candidacy.