November 29, 2015
When in doubt, take a field trip. Facing increased scrutiny about his foreign policy/national security chops, losing ground in Iowa and elsewhere to Ted Cruz, Ben Carson jumped on a plane and went to visit Syrian refugees encamped in Jordan.
It’s hard to criticize the decision. Especially in the post-9/11 era, candidates have frequently travelled to the Middle East and Europe to do some learning and credentials burnishing. Carson was able to accomplish both, first spending some time on the ground, then appearing on multiple Sunday shows from the Jordanian capital.
Carson is fighting on two fronts. Concerns over his knowledge are eroding any chance of broadening his core base. When conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Bill Kristol both say versions of “I really like him, but he’s probably not ready to be president,” the pressure to keep as many evangelicals as possible on board increases.
While Carson is by no means in total free fall, Cruz has at least temporarily grabbed many of those voters who like Carson very much, but have concerns about how aggressively he would pursue ISIS. For those who find Trump too over-the-top, the extremely assured Cruz is a comfortable fit.
On that score, Carson doubled down on his different approach. Asked by each interviewer if he agreed with Planned Parenthood’s characterization of the attack in Colorado on Friday being driven by intense rhetoric, he passed up the opportunity to accuse the organization of scapegoating.
Instead, he agreed a lack of basic civility is a problem, one that will impede any chance of solving difficult national problems. While he took care to note it was a problem on both sides of the aisle, Carson was clearly contrasting himself with Donald Trump and Cruz, among others.
While there is plenty of overlap between Carson supporters and Cruz partisans, the candidates themselves are very different. One is 20 years older than the other. One has spent most of his career in medicine, the other in politics. One sounds soothing but not always coherent, the other very sharp, but often unfriendly.
Voters may shift back and forth between the two not because they’re interchangeable, but because they each have part of what their target voters are looking for. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of GOP voters are firmly with Cruz. A number to the higher part of that range is for Carson to the end.
These voters haven’t moved much for the past several months. But there’s another 20 percent, enough to win plenty of delegates if moved in the same direction, who are willing to consider both but are not yet committed to either.
Many have supported Carson for at least a short while, a good portion may now prefer Cruz. A few haven’t yet selected either, but could going forward. The temptation is to try to cover for the shortfalls, assuming you can keep your base. For Carson, that would have meant attacking Planned Parenthood for politicizing a tragic shooting.
Instead, he did the opposite. It was the right choice for him. Much like Trump, Carson is at his best when he is most himself. It does neither any good to pretend to be a traditional candidate. It won’t convince establishment voters to support them and they’ll lose their group of potential supporters who want a change from established practice.
Ben Carson’s brand is being a thoughtful, reasonable, well-intentioned, God-fearing man who has overcome great adversity through hard work. People who are willing to support him are willing to trust that he will learn what he needs to learn (the visit to Jordan) and will attempt to bring people together without caving to journalists or political correctness.
The Doctor is safely back on message. With Trump and Cruz on message too, it remains to be seen how the math works. Do the people who prefer Carson’s brand of conservatism, outnumber those who are partial to Trump’s bombast or Cruz’s calculating?
It’s hard to say with certainty. Carson has a major hurdle ahead in the next debate, as he still needs to show a little more detail and texture in his foreign policy answers. If he gets safely over that obstacle, and his improvement today indicates that’s very possible, the January run-up to Iowa should have plenty of suspense.
He’s not anywhere near a favorite yet, but don’t rush to pull the plug on Dr. Carson. The GOP candidates are so different from each other, that it’s hard for many observers to understand how a given candidate could have appeal.
For some, the whole idea of strong outsider options is a sign Republicans have lost their collective minds. For those who get that part, they may see the appeal of Trump, but then don’t get why voters would like the less-assuming Carson. Anyone understanding his appeal, might question what supporters like in the sometimes preening Cruz. And so on.
The truth is Trump, Carson and Cruz are all skilled communicators. Whether you agree or disagree with their politics, or are ok or not with their level of experience, they unquestionably are more adept at the talking thing than Jeb Bush is.
Most impressively, they have each built a distinct brand. At least for the duration of the primary, they are each best served by enhancing it and sticking to it. Remember, there’s a difference between what might sound good to you and what makes sense for them.