Ben Carson has risen in GOP presidential polls in part because of his inspiring personal story. But now some elements of that story are being challenged by the news media – a development that could well cost him his front-runner status.
Unless it doesn’t. One big thing to remember about Mr. Carson is that the course of his candidacy has been among the most unpredictable of any so far in the 2016 campaign.
First, the backstory: On Friday, Carson’s campaign was forced to clarify a passage in his autobiography “Gifted Hands” in which he says as an ROTC student in Detroit in 1969 he was offered admittance and a full scholarship to West Point following a meeting with Army Gen. William Westmoreland at a Memorial Day banquet.
According to a Politico investigation published Friday, there’s no record he ever applied to the United States Military Academy. Admittance to West Point, then and now, is a rigorous process that begins with vetting by the office of a potential cadet’s member of Congress. And there aren’t scholarships per se. West Point is free – but in return graduating cadets serve as commissioned officers in the US armed forces.
In response to Politico, Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts on Friday said that the retired neurosurgeon was “the top ROTC student in the city of Detroit” and “was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC supervisors.”
“They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission,” said Mr. Watts.
This clarification followed a contentious CNN interview of Carson broadcast Friday in which he pushed back at CNN reporting on his early years, calling it a “bunch of lies.”
CNN had called into question some details of Carson’s accounts of temper-driven violence as a teen. Nine people who knew Carson back in the day “have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described,” according to the CNN report.
So what’s going to be the bottom line here? Will these reports have a serious effect on Carson’s rise in the polls? After all, he’s the front-runner or close to it in most polls, and that’s a time when the media becomes much more intrusive in its reporting on candidate backgrounds.
Fast-rising contenders go through a process of discovery, scrutiny, and decline, according to political scientists. Carson’s now in the “scrutiny” phase. That sunk some past hopefuls such as 2012’s Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has stayed fairly steady since shooting up in the polls after declaring his candidacy.
It’s easy today to find pundits who think Carson is doomed. In their view, it’s his personal story and his quiet air of authority that are his biggest assets. If voters begin to think he’s an act, they’ll move elsewhere.
“Ben Carson’s greatest strength in gop race was authenticity and trustworthiness. If that begins to fracture he will drop like a rock,” tweeted ABC news analyst Matthew Dowd.
Others were blunter.
“The beginning of the end of Ben Carson, I believe,” tweeted Politico national editor Michael Hirsh.
Carson’s current closest rival is likely to try and help this process along. Mr. Trump on Friday was gleefully retweeting negative comments about Carson veracity. Expect to see the reality star/billionaire pound the same theme during upcoming appearances.
But what if it doesn’t matter?
Look at this from the point of view of a committed Carson supporter: The West Point thing is just nit picking. Carson has always said he turned down the opportunity to go the US Military Academy. And the CNN stuff is kind of backward. The ex-surgeon’s credibility is in trouble because he may have been a more well-behaved teen than he’s led the world to believe? Is that really going to cost him votes?
After all, Carson has long had problems with loose statements. He’s compared abortion to slavery, and some aspects of the current US political situation to Nazi Germany. In fact, The Washington Post has called him the “biggest fan of Nazi metaphors in politics.”
Lately he’s been in the news for saying in an old speech that the pyramids were built to store grain, not house Egyptian royalty.
And none of these things seem to have much affected his standing with Republican voters. Right now, his favorability rating is plus-60 points in Gallup polls, the highest in the GOP field.
His debate performances have been sleepy and uninspiring, at least to many in the media. He’s got none of the bluster of Trump or crisp words of Carly Fiorina. Yet his polls have risen following debates. After he announced he was quitting the campaign trail for a bit to continue a book tour, he leaped past Trump into first in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys.
Given this, not everybody in Washington is convinced that Carson’s candidacy has entered a credibility death spiral.
“Wonder how many points Carson will go up in the next poll?” tweeted New York Times political reporter Nick Confessore on Friday afternoon.