Ben Carson Enters GOP Contest for 2016

Ben Carson

Photo courtesy of CPAC

Ben Carson Enters GOP Contest for 2016
| published March 14, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The 2016 Republican race for the White House is both crowded and top-heavy. After much discussion and rumor in December and January, Mitt Romney officially announced that he would not—at least at this time—seek a third run for the Presidency in the 2016 cycle. Around that same time, Romney’s former running-mate, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, likewise said he would prefer to concentrate his energies on his work in Congress.

Two down, but dozens still in the thick of the early jostling.

Though technically no potential GOP contender has made their candidacy official, more than a dozen are in the very serious early stages of running—having formed political action committees, taken appropriate early legal steps, hired staff and advisors, deployed resources and materials, organized and attended major fundraising events, and made innumerable appearances at early beauty contests and media shows in places like Las Vegas, Iowa, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. At least a dozen potential candidates have also been making frequent and regular appearances at events in the early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

The list of names is substantial: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (for the moment, at least, the presumed front-runner and the biggest fundraiser), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. All have been actively campaigning as if their candidacies are official.

Others campaign as well, but only slightly under the radar: Mike Pence of Indiana, a dark horse candidate of the right; Ohio Governor John Kasich; former Arkansas Governor (and 2008 presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (also a former candidate, from 2012); and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio (see our article from March 7, 2015) is also strongly considering a run for President, despite the possible complexities of two candidates running from the Sunshine State.

With each passing week, the list of potential GOP contenders has grown, even as others demur. Flush from its stunning successes in the 2014 midterms, Republican Party sees a rich opportunity in 2016, and GOP strategists see Hillary Clinton as increasingly vulnerable on a range of identifiers and resume points. Her recent imbroglio over private emails and a privately-managed server housed in the Clinton home serves as yet another weapon Republicans will surely use to bludgeon her when her candidacy begins in earnest. In the meantime, Clinton remains virtually unchallenged from within the ranks of Democrats.

Add one new potential name to the list of Republicans eager to challenge that presumed Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton: Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric surgeon, author, and conservative political commentator. Carson has been in the early, exploratory stages for some time, often answering interviewers—those who prompt the “are you running?” question—with the safe, boilerplate answer: I have not made a decision. Normally this means yes, or at least not “no.”

But Carson has gone about as far as any Republican, save for Bush or Christie, by announcing days ago that he now considers himself a candidate. He has formed an exploratory committee, filed all the required legal first-step paperwork, and is essentially running already, though he stops short of declaring his candidacy using the most technical of definitions. His website gives potential supporters the option to basically cast their own vote—asking for commitments of support and financial assistance, and requesting that website visitors sign up for his newsletter and future mailings.

Carson’s stock has been rising among conservatives, some of whom follow his every word, and his strength within the world of straw polls and beauty pageant balloting has risen so dramatically in the last two weeks that he is, for all practical purposes, already a first-tier contender—right up there with Bush, Christie, and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz. Carson’s status as a best-selling author of a variety of books on a variety of topics also means that he has a built-in base of followers and supporters: those who like him tend to like him a lot. And as the likely sole African-American on the stage during the first GOP debate this summer, he can be expected to draw an outsized share of media scrutiny and analysis, as well as mountains of the same kind of praise given to Herman Cain in 2012, when Cain’s candidacy briefly shook up the established template and made Cain a hero to conservatives.

But Carson is no Cain. Cain’s message resonated, then, caught fire, among the Republican’s most faithful conservatives. Cain performed well in those first debates, which drew media attention away from the quarrels between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Cain also gets credit for realigning the GOP narrative after only a couple of standout performances, shifting the talk away from GOP negatives—like immigration—and decidedly toward taxes, jobs, and economic growth. His poll numbers skyrocketed quickly, moving him from bottom tier to front runner in dramatic fashion.

But Cain also burned out early. Eventually Cain’s campaign collapsed after allegations came to the forefront of inappropriate sexual activity and affairs. Carson has no such baggage. And unlike Cain’s meteoric rise and swift, Homeric fall, Carson has an intellectual credibility with conservatives that runs as deeply as a Ben Stein and as broadly as a Jack Kemp.

Some political analysts and savants suggest that Carson’s television style is wrong for the debates; he tends to alternate between sounding formally academic and caregiverishly-paced, two TV delivery styles inappropriate for the cage-match, ultimate fighting style now embraced by both the networks and the debate prep teams. As we saw in both 2008 and again in 2012, the debates have become a kind of gladiatorial combat, a weird mix of Survivor and Roller Derby, of WWE wrestling and The Biggest Loser. If CNN and Fox News had the authority, chainsaws would have been issued to each candidate five minutes prior to a few of the summer 2011 debates.

This political-entertainment model may not suit Dr. Carson’s style, even if he carries conservative credibility into those early debates. One easy mental test: how would Carson fare against a one on one confrontation with a fired up Chris Christie, or a ready for battle Ted Cruz? On the other hand, Carson may perform well in the eyes of comparison shoppers who are already skeptical of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

Carson also has a personal story that is hard to beat for most Republicans: poverty and hardship and struggle in Detroit; a determined single-parent mom who instilled the importance of learning in her kids; a young man who worked his way through college by driving school buses and supervising highway clean-up crews, and a guy who beat the odds to become a pediatric neurosurgeon and the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center.

Recent Gallop polling shows among all voters Hillary Clinton still ranks number one—by a wide margin—among Democrats, but Carson ranks above even Clinton in favorability. This would seem to bode well for the doctor, but the problem is that he remains largely unknown to many Republicans and almost completely unknown to most Democrats. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is known well enough that nearly 90% of all Americans polled had an opinion about her—pro or con. This does not equal support in terms of votes, of course, but simply indicates that Carson beats Clinton in the likeability column.

Such poll anomalies may very well work to Carson’s benefit at first, especially when he enters those first, crowded GOP debate venues this summer. The unfavorable numbers associated with Christie, Walker, Bush or Huckabee work against all four, and may drive some Republicans to consider Carson an acceptable alternative to the other top tier candidates. And that may be enough to give Carson an early edge.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will Florida Produce Two Presidential Candidates?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 7, 2015.

Likely Progressive Attack: Bush is Romney Part 2; Thursday Review staff; February 9, 2015.