How do you explain a phenomenon like Ben Carson? Even better, how do you explain a phenomenon like Ben Carson in our 24-hour news cycle, which is amped by the media methamphetamine that is social media? When I first started this story Wednesday, it was going to be an in-depth look into how Ben Carson, a black, world-famous neurosurgeon with no political experience, had managed to jump to the top of the polls in the Republican field for president in 2016.
But then news happened.
Wednesday, Nov. 4, 10:38 a.m., Ben Carson drops a mixtape. Then, Thursday, Nov. 5, 10 a.m., CNN reports that several high school classmates of Carson’s dispute his “reformed thug” narrative. And then today, Nov. 6, at 11:35 a.m., Politico reveals that a key part of Carson’s best-selling autobiography is a complete lie.
Are we seeing the end of Ben? Or is this just the rough-and-tumble of the election cycle for a front-runner? Even Carson doesn’t know the answer to that one. But if you look at how he’s risen to the top of the polls thus far, there are clues as to how he’ll come out the other side of this barrage of scandals and screwups in the last 48 hours.
Over the last month, the empirical numbers about Carson have gotten better and better. He has tied or is leading Donald Trump in some national polls. He has the highest personal-approval rating of any of the candidates running for president as Republicans or Democrats. His campaign raised more money than anyone else’s on the Republican side in the last quarter. He’s snagged endorsements from Kid Rock to Richard Petty, along with a few state representatives as well. This would be a fantastic month for most candidates running for president, and it’s certainly a month that stragglers like Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rand Paul would dream of. And yet with Carson it still comes off as strange.
He’s accomplished all of these goals while engaging in behavior that seems to be the antithesis of any commonsense campaign strategy in American presidential history.
He took two weeks off his campaign to sell books but jumped up in the polls. He’s winning evangelical Christians, but he’s a Seventh-day Adventist who thinks the slaves of Egypt built the pyramids as giant bread bins. He victim-blames German Jews for the Holocaust and he’s praised by the National Rifle Association. All of this on top of the fact that his campaign spends half its intake on raising money and he’s still barely fielding a team in the first primary states. How is he doing this?
“He is totally outside of the black political experience. … We don’t even have theories to explain someone like Carson,” said Niambi Carter, a professor of political science and African-American studies at Howard University. “He shouldn’t have any better of a chance than Scott Walker did, or Chris Christie or Rand Paul.”
Which is true; Carson’s success seems to baffle even the most dedicated of Republicans, who are often hesitant to speak ill publicly of any front-runner while the race is still in flux. As much as people may loathe Trump, his rise to polling prominence makes sense. The Donald is telegenic, has name recognition and is known by large swathes of America who’ve watched NBC’s The Apprentice for the last 10 years. But Carson has none of these skills or a known base, but he’s doing just as well.
One explanation for Carson’s success might be that he is, in a sense, a protest vote. That he represents an anti-Obama temper tantrum for subconscious racists.
“He does serve that purpose,” said Carter, “and it does insulate those voters from certain charges of racism. Like when George Bush picked Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall. He was kind of thumbing his nose at Marshall’s legacy.”
So what does all this support—whether it stems from evangelical Christians, passive racist protesters or just hard-line Republicans—end up doing in the face of the charges leveled against the good doctor in the last 48 hours? Probably nothing. Carson’s success is not really about him. It’s about getting back at President Barack Obama, or a revolt against the political establishment.
His success is born of a wide field of candidates with little depth who ultimately are just a tabula rasa for the conservative primary voters to fling red paint at. Finding out that Carson is a liar, that he never applied to or was accepted at West Point, or that he wasn’t a wayward youth doesn’t matter to those voters because they were never really voting for Ben Carson anyway, only what he represented.
As we see how these revelations about Carson and his success and failures play out in the news over the next two days, one theory does come to mind that may explain his future, if not his past, rise to fame. The Bradley Effect was a theory used to explain how Tom Bradley, a black man leading all the major polls for governor of California in 1982, suddenly lost by a large margin on Election Day. The theory goes that white voters will express strong support for black candidates when it doesn’t matter, like in a primary or pre-election polls, but will choose to vote for a white candidate once they’re in the voting booth.
That’s how candidates like former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder or even then-candidate Obama held huge margins with white voters in some areas, only to see them shrink or totally disappear on Election Day without any real correlation to campaign events. Angry white conservative voters will stick with Ben through this storm but will likely turn to a more “traditional” candidate who’s got a better chance to win once the Iowa caucuses start. In the meantime, Ben Carson will continue to shock and awe the political world, either with his success or his failures, even if nobody can explain it.
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.