Ben Carson: Where do his supporters go?

Ben Carson effectively ended his presidential campaign Wednesday. Ted Cruz might be the top beneficiary, though the 'dirty tricks' charge could discourage some supporters. 

Luis Magana/AP
Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson waves to supporters during an election night party in Baltimore, Tuesday. In a statement Wednesday, Dr. Carson declared he did not "see a political path forward" in light of Super Tuesday results.

Ben Carson, the famed pediatric neurosurgeon and the only African-American in the Republican presidential field, has effectively ended his campaign.

Dr. Carson’s campaign issued a statement Wednesday saying that he will not participate in the Republican debate in Detroit Thursday night, and that he sees no “political path forward” in his quest for the GOP nomination. He did not formally suspend his campaign, however – perhaps saving that moment for Friday, when he will address the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“I do not see a political path forward in light of last evening’s Super Tuesday primary results,” Carson said.

The big question now is, for whom do Carson supporters vote in the 35 states that have yet to hold their primaries and caucuses? Carson did poorly in Tuesday’s 11 GOP contests, but he still won a significant number of votes. In fact, he outscored Ohio Gov. John Kasich in six of the Super Tuesday states – Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

The future direction of Carson’s support is highly significant, as leading figures in the Republican Party seek to derail the candidacy of frontrunner Donald Trump, the mercurial billionaire who uses inflammatory rhetoric and espouses views that veer from conservative orthodoxy. The still-large GOP field – five candidates, including Carson – has allowed Mr. Trump to play “divide and conquer” with his opponents; he has won most of the nominating contests with pluralities of the vote.

Carson supporters might be a natural fit for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Both men have made outreach to evangelical voters, a key portion of the Republican base, a centerpiece of their campaigns. Indeed, a poll taken last month by NBC News/Survey Monkey found that the top second choice candidate for Carson supporters was Senator Cruz. He won 24 percent of Carson supporters, according to the poll of registered Republicans taken Feb. 8 to 14. Trump was next at 22 percent, and “Don’t Know” was third at 17 percent. At that time, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was still in the race, and was the second choice for 6 percent of Carson supporters.

Cruz might have done even better with Carson supporters in the poll, had his campaign not spread rumors that Carson was planning to drop out as the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses were about to start. The mild-mannered Carson was furious over what he called a “dirty trick”; Cruz initially denied wrong-doing, then apologized to Carson for what he called a “mistake” by staff.

The “dirty tricks” charge against Cruz has become part of Trump’s regular chatter on the stump. Cruz’s campaign has done other things, such as creating a photoshopped poster of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shaking hands with President Obama, that feed Trump’s line about Cruz as a “liar” and “dirty trickster.”

Carson’s entry into the presidential race last May 3 launched the “outsider” trend that has come to define the 2016 campaign. A day later, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina entered the race, and in June, Trump got in. None has ever held elective office, and for a period, polls showed the three of them together accounting for more than half the Republican electorate.

For a period last fall, Carson was either at or near the top of the Republican field, an unusually calm presence in a field known for its hyperkinetic characters. Carson’s personal story – the son of a single mom who grew up poor in Detroit – has moved millions of Americans, as has his storied career as a leading surgeon. His life story is captured in his memoir, “Gifted Hands,” and on film. For a time, millions of dollars flooded into his campaign. 

Carson also made strict adherence to the Constitution and battling “political correctness” key parts of his message.

As a black Republican, Carson added diversity to the image of a party eager to attract minorities. But Carson’s stumbles in public, including on the debate stage, over foreign policy and national security led to questions about his ability to handle an important element of the presidency, and his numbers began to slide.

Yet Carson still has a core of followers – 9 percent of Republicans nationally in the latest RealClearPolitics average, two-tenths of a percent ahead of Governor Kasich.

"This grassroots movement on behalf of 'We the People' will continue," Carson said in his statement Wednesday. "Along with millions of patriots who have supported my campaign for President, I remain committed to Saving America for Future Generations."

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