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.
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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.
There are a host of reasons that explain Carson’s new numbers, and the biggest is that the Iowa caucus voters don’t poll like voters in your regular primary states. They are, in a word, spoiled when it comes to presidential candidates, and it shows up in the polling. They are used to candidates knocking on their doors and dropping literature for years before the primaries. Consequently, new faces or late entries in the campaign have a tendency to get rewarded in some early polls. It’s like the fact that New Yorkers aren’t impressed when there are pictures of Jay Z getting off a plane at LaGuardia; he’s there all the time. But post an Instagram shot of Idris Elba walking out of Duane Reade and it’s got a million hits in an hour.
In the political sense, Ben Carson is Idris Elba (a sentence I promise you will not read anywhere else this campaign season). He is a late entry to the campaign, and unlike the seasoned politicians who have been visiting Iowa since the end of the 2012 election, he’s something new and shiny for voters to look at.
The second reason for Carson’s jump in the polls is that he’s already started spending money on advertising, while most campaigns are holding off until November or December. Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and most of the top-10 candidates know that blowing cash on the air war before Labor Day isn’t a good long-term strategy.
Third, no one is paying attention to—and, thus, attacking—Carson because he hasn’t been seen as a threat. If his numbers should hold until the CNN debate Sept. 16, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to withstand the full attack of 16 other candidates. In a sign of what’s to come, front-runner Trump just said, “I like Ben a lot; he’s a good guy.”
You know what happened to the last guy Trump complimented on the campaign trail? He called Jeb Bush a “gentleman” during the first debate, then pummeled him into fifth place with a barrage of attacks and insults over the following few weeks. If Trump could do that to establishment hero Jeb Bush, it’s unlikely that “soft-spoken” Ben Carson would have the money or verbal dexterity to survive a sustained “Trumping” in the press.
Carson has slipped into the limelight of the 2016 GOP race because he’s the new kid on the block and nobody is paying attention to him. History, common sense and his own meager campaign skills say that he won’t be in that limelight for long, and several people will likely take his place as the “insurgent” candidate behind Trump before we get to the Iowa caucus.
But for the time being, Carson can bask in the glow of his newfound power, raise some money and do more interviews. Unless he manages to beat the Islamic State group before January, it’s unlikely he’ll be facing off against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.