Ben Carson's poll decline – and what this says about Donald Trump

Is it the 'Paris effect'? Or can Ben Carson's drop out of front-runner status be traced to more wide-reaching causes?

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson delivers a speech to supporters in Phoenix.

Ben Carson rose quickly. Now he’s dropping almost as fast.

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows the retired neurosurgeon has declined seven percentage points over the past month, falling out of the top ranks of GOP presidential front-runners. Dr. Carson is tied for third in the survey, with his total of 16 percent trailing Donald Trump (27 percent) and Marco Rubio (17 percent), and tying with the rising Ted Cruz.

Yes, this is just one poll. It’s possible it exaggerates Carson’s slide. But a slide there clearly is: His line in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys is clearly pointed downward. He peaked in early November, when he tied with Mr. Trump for first in the RCP measure at about 25 percent. Now he’s down to 19, while Trump is up to 28.

What’s going on? The smart money answer is “Paris.” Carson has struggled with answers to foreign policy questions since the tragic Nov. 13 events in the City of Light. He’s wrongly said China is involved militarily in Syria and been unable to name any ally he’d enlist to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East.

The Quinnipiac data show that Carson dropped 10 points on the question of whether he has the “right kind of experience to be president.” In early November, 38 percent of respondents answered “yes” to that question. Now only 28 percent agree.

“If there’s a Paris effect in the GOP race, it looks like Ben Carson is the one feeling it – and not Donald Trump,” says ABC News analyst Rick Klein on Wednesday.

That could be it. But we think the explanation for Carson’s drop is broader than that. It’s not just foreign policy in particular. It’s all subjects: His media coverage in recent weeks has focused relentlessly on negative aspects, dealing with everything from his musing that Egyptians built the pyramids for grain storage, to questions about the accuracy of parts of his life story.

You can see this in Wednesday’s Quinnipiac results. It’s not just the “right experience to be president” cross-tab where Carson has declined. He’s also had a six-point drop over the past month in the percentage of respondents who agree with the statement that he “cares about the problems of people like you.” He’s had a seven-point drop on the question of whether he “shares your values.”

What Carson is going through is a classic phase of discovery and decline. Voters liked what they heard about him initially, but they didn’t know that much about him. He’s a celebrity, sure, but much less of a celebrity than Trump.

Now they’ve learned more, and a certain number of GOP voters have decided to look elsewhere. This was a defining characteristic of the 2012 race. Michele Bachmann rose and fell. So did Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum.

The more interesting question here may be, why hasn’t this happened to Trump? He’s had pretty negative news coverage over the past month as well. The media are closely examining his statements for evidence of fascism, inaccuracies, and outright fabrications.

He dipped just a bit, but for the most part he’s stayed stable in the polls, and is now trending up a few points. It’s this persistence that is beginning to frighten GOP leaders, as they see it’s a real possibility he could win the nomination.

And it’s why his candidacy seems different to political scientists. So far, in so many ways, Trump the politician is running outside the political norms.

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