Friday, October 30, 2015

Let's Talk About Dr. Ben Carson

Carson on 'Glyconutrients'
Dr. Ben Carson leads by approximately 10 points in Iowa and trails Donald Trump nationally by 10. He has raised enormous amounts of cash--largely from small donors. Despite not having the the most talk time--or many break-out moments--he has consistently gained since each debate (unlike Trump who was, erm, kinda "born at the top"). He uses traditional (direct mail) fundraising techniques--but he has a substantial social media profile (more Facebook than Twitter--but he's not doing so badly there either). Carson has said things ("Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery") that have made the media roll their eyes--but these have been big fundraisers for him: his people--they approve.

What's Going On?

In raw terms, Carson is a highly implausible candidate. He has zero political or even executive experience. His platform is nothing more than a mishmash of basic conservative ideas--with an emphasis on the bible (he favors a flat tax because it's like a tithe and "God is a pretty fair guy." He's black--which appeals to a sore-spot with conservatives who are always accused of being racist--and he's not impressed with Black Lives Matter--which also helps.

So what's the deal?

1. The Content of His Character

Carson is, literally, a heroic figure. He is hugely admired, has a calm, reassuring manner, an impressive biography (Cuban Gooding Jr. played him in a movie about his life). He is genuine. You might not think Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery--but you believe Carson thinks so when he says it. Dr. Carson gives generously to charity, has saved many children (and, indeed, as a brilliant surgeon, might be the only one who was capable of doing it).

In other words, if one of your top requirements for the presidency is a man of character (and you aren't put off by his conservatism or religious nature?), Dr. Carson is your guy.

2. The Color of His Skin

Let's not underestimate what the GOP's on minority candidate does for morale either. As noted, conservatives are often attacked as being racist when they feel that their stance on the issue is simply at odds with liberal principals. They might not always be right--but certainly they sometimes are. Having "a lot of black friends"--or even a favored black candidate--doesn't make you not-racist . . . but surely it helps?

3. Isn't This The Year of The Outsider?

Where Dr. Carson's thin resume when it comes to governing (and thin is being generous) would usually be seen as a problem, isn't it, this cycle, an asset? The three political outsiders are doing really, really well and the tone towards Washington is sour. Surely part of Carson's appeal is his lack of political ties and his lack of political compromises.

None Of That Is Why Carson Is Leading

While the above is part of the picture, it isn't the major part of it. These are the visible elements "above the iceberg" that are often placed first-and-foremost in the national media. These would be good enough to get Dr. Carson to the level of a 2008 Huckabee or a 2012 Santorum. Carson's 1st or 2nd place polling position, however, has other drivers. 

Part 1: Reverse Evangelical Splintering

A massive disappointment for evangelical social conservatives over the last two national election cycles has been their failure to get a strong candidate into the later stages of the nomination. Many were horrified by Romney who they saw as a heretic (although, to be fair, not as bad as a Muslim--statistically evangelical voters did turn out, for Romney, against Obama). Rick Santorum was certainly religious enough--but everyone knew he was a weak candidate.

They'd wasted their time flirting with Bachmann, failed to get Mike Huckabee into the race, and so on.

The word has been that in 2016, the evangelical vote needs to decide--and fast--who their candidate will be. Today, that's Dr. Ben Carson. We see Huckabee and Santorum pulling next to nothing. Carson may not be a policy heavy-weight but he's really, really religious and he projects it. 

It's not just a facet of his campaign or character--it's part of the bedrock. In an environment where evangelicals often have to settle for someone who "doesn't hate them," Carson is one of them. The more viable he looks then, the better his polling numbers. The better his polling numbers, the more viable he looks.

Part 2: The Culture War

The most important key to Dr. Carson's success, however, isn't all that different from Donald Trump's: Carson knows he is fighting a culture war and like Trump--and this is crucial--he isn't apologetic about it. Conservatives--evangelical social conservatives--have been told for years they need to give up on putting social issues first. They've been told the war is over. They've been told the good-guys lost.

Carson, simply, doesn't believe that. He's happy to say marriage isn't a right, homosexuality is a choice, decriminalizing marijuana is wrong (medical marijuana okay), and so on. He against abortion in all cases of convenience. He doesn't think a Muslim could be a good president and he's not afraid to say so.

Dr. Carson will go out on a debate stage in front of millions of people and say Political Correctness is one of the key things that's killing America. That resonates with a lot of conservatives--and deeply. In other words, Carson is the legitimate Happy Warrior: he doesn't come off as angry--but he sure is bringing the fight.

For a group that has suffered humiliation--perhaps the strongest emotional motivator in the human spectrum--that is a powerful appeal. With a slate of recent setbacks and betrayals (SCOTUS decisions, for example) a Carson election--even a nomination--is a chance to regain some standing.

The Problems With Carson

Dr. Carson, however, is not without his down-sides. His primary one is Mannatech. Carson fronted for a dodgy supplement company, lent his visage to it, and gave speeches. He claimed he had no relationship to it at the debates--this is clearly a lie. Not only is it a lie, it is one of the more troubling ones: a calculated misdirection (he had a middle man agency that existed to give him deniability). Secondly, his SuperPAC has the sniff of a scam to it. 

It is one thing to push your book sales for personal profit (Carson took 2 weeks "off campaigning" to handle his book roll-out). It is another one to sell snake-oil supplements and have a swirl of opportunists preying on your fan-base.

To be fair, Huckabee has had these problems as well: he has pitched diet / diabetes advice that is not necessarily best-practices--but the problem isn't good. Little has been more reprehensible than the monetizing of trust and fear that has been directed against the conservative base.

The other major issue is that Carson brings little to the table other than his culture war. He wants to balance the budget, flatten the tax code, and meet Putin with "grave and serious consequences." But beyond that he's anti-abortion, anti-common core, pro second amendment, anti-obamacare, pro-Israel, and pro "faith,"

None of these are bad, per-se--but they are all simply salvos in the cultural battle presented in sound-bites on his web page without details or plans. This is to be expected: The Omnivore doesn't know who is advising Carson on foreign affairs, but saying it's time to meet Putin with grave consequences for his actions is a high-risk, low-reward plan that sounds good to the base but . . . what does it mean?

Carson v. Trump

The Omnivore feels that Carson doesn't have as much "staying power" as Trump does--but in this campaign who knows what anyone's expiration date really is (Hey, Jindal's still in there!). Iowa is key for Carson--but he's strong there. The word is that Carson is burning money to raise money--and that can create problems--but his small donor base is strong and he can cut his burn rate and still bring money in.

The question is this: if you want a culture warrior do you want it secular or religious? Neither Carson nor Trump is equally credible in both (The Omnivore thinks Trump's blue-collar base may be more loyal than Carson's evangelicals because guys like Ted Cruz or even, to a lesser extent, Marco Rubio, could carry some of the religious weight--but no one brings it loud and rude like Donald Trump).


  1. Can someone find one of these internal power point presentations where a republican operative clearly states that, "Romney didn't win because the Evangelicals wouldn't vote for a Mormon?"

  2. Can someone find one of these internal power point presentations where a republican operative clearly states that, "Romney didn't win because the Evangelicals wouldn't vote for a Mormon?"

    1. There isn't one--the exit polling shows that evangelicals clearly *did* vote for Romney (the voters who didn't turn out for him were blue-collar whites). The problem is that the *perception* in the evangelical community believes if they had settled on a candidate sooner they would have had one.

      -The Omnivore