What Ben Carson’s new rap ad means for his campaign

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is set to release a hip-hop radio ad as part of an effort to reach out to young black voters, his campaign says. Some see an effort to redirect attention.

David Zalubowski/AP
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks in Lakewood, Colo., on Oct. 29. Dr. Carson is set to release a hip-hop radio ad on Friday as part of an effort to reach out to young, black voters, his campaign says.

Ben Carson’s decision to roll out a new rap radio ad may have less to do with winning black votes for the Republican primary than with drawing positive attention to his campaign, experts say.

The 60-second ad, titled “Freedom,” features hip-hop artist Aspiring Mogul, who implores listeners to “vote, vote,” between snippets of Dr. Carson’s stump speech. Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts described it as an effort to reach out to young black voters “on a level they appreciate and follow.”

The ad may be an attempt to direct attention away from Carson’s gaffes and controversial statements, some say. But others see the new ad, with its heavy urban beat, as a way to reach nontraditional Republican markets with a message that’s palatable to his existing supporters.

“[I]f you listen to the message of the ad, it specifically cites the values of personal responsibility, hard work, and innovation. That’s entirely consistent with his broader message regarding the keys to his own success, and what he believes is the best way to attack racism,” Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, writes in an e-mail.

“He may genuinely believe he should reach out to the young black community,” Professor Dickinson adds in a phone interview. But “his policy statement is to empower individuals to overcome racism, rather than pitting groups against each other. That’s appealing to white Republicans.”

Indeed, Carson’s surge to the lead in major polls for the Republican presidential race has come largely from the support of white, rural communities and evangelical Christians, who relate to his emphasis on morality and family, the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann writes.

Meanwhile, Carson’s more controversial remarks – likening President Obama to a psychopath, calling the Affordable Care Act the worst thing "since slavery," and declaring that homosexuality is a choice – has created a growing gap between him and the black community.

“Has he lost his sense of who he is?” the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent black pastor in Baltimore, told The Washington Post this spring. “He does not see he is the next Herman Cain.”

In an op-ed for Time magazine, basketball legend, author, and education ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar argues that Carson as president would “definitely not be good for African Americans.”

“His presidency would be marked by even worse gridlock while he wastes his time trying to impose his narrow and sometimes ill-informed morality on the other 319 million people in the nation,” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar writes.

“He has long been a highly respected figure in the black community ... a model of success,” says David Lublin, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington. “But his attacks on President Obama and his embrace of hard-line Republican viewpoints have alienated a lot of African-Americans.”

Some wonder about the strategic impact of the Carson radio ad at this stage in the primary race.

“As a direct way to win votes in GOP primaries, the ad makes no sense. Young black voters make up an infinitesimal share of the GOP primary electorate,” writes Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, in an e-mail to the Monitor. More likely, he continues, “the ad is ... a way of generating talk about Carson that does not focus on his many gaffes or his strident positions on social issues.”

But to other experts, the rollout of “Freedom” may have some strategic merit. Set to run Friday in eight urban markets – including Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, and Memphis, Tenn. – the ad could win over a handful of black voters in states where they need not affiliate with a party, says Henry Olsen, a conservative political analyst and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

“[A]ll Southern states except Florida, Kentucky, and North Carolina have no partisan registration,” Mr. Olsen writes in an e-mail. “Thus, if Carson can persuade some blacks to cross over for him he's effectively expanding the GOP voter pool in ways his rivals cannot.”

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