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Eye On Candidates
December 3, 2015

Examining Carson’s Slow Decline

The last several weeks have seen a steady erosion — but not collapse — of support for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. A number of articles in recent days have begun to examine what is happening with his campaign, and what it might mean for his chances of winning the GOP nomination. Politico this morning described his most recent efforts to recover with his base:

Carson scrambles to patch up evangelical support

Ben Carson has delivered lengthy and strongly worded condemnations of abortion in nearly all circumstances, including rape and incest….

Yet not long after Carson told an interviewer Sunday that both sides of the nation’s abortion debate had engaged in “hateful rhetoric,” anti-abortion leaders lashed out at the Republican presidential candidate, who made his remarks in the context of the fatal shootings near a Colorado Planned Parenthood….

After a two-day backlash, Carson took to Facebook to clarify his remarks – the second time in two weeks that he has been forced to walk back comments that infuriated conservative Christian allies. Carson prompted a similar blow-up after a recent Florida candidate summit where he described the emotional politics surrounding the life and death of Terri Schiavo — the Florida woman in a vegetative state who died in 2005 after her feeding tube was removed by court order — as “much ado about nothing.”

While evangelicals have fueled Carson's rise to the upper tier of the GOP primary, he’s also made a habit of leaving his Christian conservative fans puzzled and frustrated at times by statements like those that seem at odds with their seemingly shared beliefs. And it helps explain, in combination with his stumbles on foreign policy, why recent polls report his standing among evangelicals has eroded.

The article later points to one of Carson’s key weaknesses, his general unfamiliarity with the details of policy questions as well as the sort of language his allies expect him to use:

While Carson’s missteps may have tarnished an otherwise sterling brand among Christian conservatives, the existing reservoir of goodwill leaves many willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, said Carson is a “man of good character” who appeared to be “underserved, perhaps, by staff that should be briefing him more clearly on these issues.”

Nance observed that Carson's status as an outsider in the presidential field is double-edged: it attracts voters sick of the status quo, but it also means he hasn't been in the political trenches with abortion opponents and learned the language of the movement.

The political danger for Carson is described by another pro-life leader:

“These gaffes are having a considerable effect,” [Steven Ertelt, president of Colorado Citizens for Life and editor of LifeNews said]. “At, we’re hearing from a significant number of pro-life voters who are concerned about how whether he is sufficiently pro-life or understands pro-life issues thoroughly enough to become the nominee. With a field full of solidly pro-life candidates, Carson can’t afford any more blunders or he will see his chances of becoming the nominee fade away.”

Carson’s statements on national security matters also seem to have diminished his support, at least according to another Politico article posted late last night:

According to nearly two dozen Republican voters, activists and operatives in South Carolina, Carson has lost his momentum in this first-in-the-South primary state, just as the polls say he has in Iowa and nationwide as well.

“Everybody knows the guy’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and a genuinely pleasant, pleasant, wonderful man,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist based in nearby Greenville. “But these are not pleasant, wonderful times.”

A series of confused statements from Carson in the days after the terrorist attacks in Paris have been particularly damaging to his candidacy in South Carolina, which serves as home to military bases and large numbers of veterans and other voters who regularly cite foreign policy as a driving issue. And his efforts to change direction now — by visiting refugees in the Middle East, as he did over the weekend, or by laying out a plan to “strangle” the group known as ISIL or ISIS — aren’t enough to change hardening perceptions that on national security and global affairs, he is simply out of his depth.

The stories come on the heels of his recent slide in the polls, which may accelerate if he keeps fumbling. The New York Times’ report on the most recent Quinnipiac Poll described what has happened to Carson:

On the Republican side, Mr. [Donald] Trump has benefited from recent stumbles by Mr. Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose rise has been stymied by questions about his biography and his knowledge of foreign policy.

A month ago, the two were deadlocked, but the survey results released Wednesday show Mr. Trump clearly in first place with 27 percent of Republican voters. Mr. Carson has dropped to third place with 16 percent….

Carson may be able to reverse his trajectory, given that there appears to be a substantial reservoir of goodwill for him among his base. Just last night he announced a slate of endorsements from religious leaders in the key early state of South Carolina, as reported by The Washington Post:

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson announced the endorsement of fifteen South Carolina "faith leaders" during a press conference here Wednesday evening, a rollout that comes as the campaign struggles to find steady footing after a nose dive in national polls….

But the same article also noted the mounting troubles for Carson’s campaign:

Carson has struggled to move beyond intense scrutiny over his grasp of foreign policy and national security issues in recent weeks, which have taken heightened importance since the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. Those questions have taken a dramatic toll on Carson’s poll numbers; a national survey of Republican voters released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University showed that his support has fallen by 7 percentage points, putting him now in third place….

Carson’s support among White Christian evangelicals — a crucial bloc in early-voting Iowa — has also slipped sharply, down from 32 percent last month to just 19 percent. Many of those voters appear to have thrown their support behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ties with Carson nationally and is ahead of him in Iowa….

The endorsement also came on the same day a top Carson fundraiser and longtime friend, Bill Millis, announced his resignation from the campaign. The Wall Street Journal first reported the departure Wednesday, pointing to ongoing tensions within his staff’s ranks. Watts said that while Bill Millis is a genuinely nice man" and was a member of the campaign's board he "was not active in the campaign activities."

It is far too early to be counting Carson out of the nomination fight – his high name ID, generally positive ratings from the public, and significant fundraising haul all ensure he has at least a chance of returning to his past levels of support and competitiveness. But it seems that unless he can reverse the general narrative developing of being a nice and brilliant man out of his depth in politics, such a recovery will not happen.