The national news media is being forced to recognize a fact that many political reports have not really engaged with thus far: Ben Carson’s support is strong, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The former pediatric neurosurgeon, who has no political experience and is running his first campaign, is consistently near the top of the polls in the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Carson broke from the pack in national polling at the end of August and is now running second only to real estate mogul Donald Trump, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
While Trump has been extensively covered by the national media, in no small part because of his tendency to lob verbal bombs at his opponents, coverage of Carson has been less intensive – possibly because many in the media originally viewed him as a fringe candidate who would likely have little staying power.
On Thursday, however, Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin and John Heilmann conducted focus groups in Iowa and New Hampshire and came away surprised at the depth of support Carson has among voters in both of the early voting primary states.
“Iowa and New Hampshire, undecided Republicans, you saw there, the gap between what they say about Ben Carson and what people in New York and Washington think is massive,” Halperin said on MSNBC Thursday morning.
A story published by Bloomberg about the focus groups said, “When asked to describe Carson, participants in the focus groups called him ‘deep,’ ‘thoughtful,’ ‘intelligent,’ ‘measured,’ ‘true to himself’ ‘someone you can trust’ and ‘calm.’”
One participant said they felt he would be a “soothing balm” to the country as president.
However, as Carson garners more attention from the mainstream media, he will be pressed to answer more and more complex policy questions, often about subjects that he appears rather uninformed about.
On Wednesday afternoon, for example, the popular public radio business news program Marketplace released the transcript of a lengthy interview with Carson. Host Kai Ryssdal asked Carson repeatedly about the federal debt limit and how he would handle the need to raise it in order to avoid a government default. From the candidate’s answers, it wasn’t clear that he actually understood what the debt limit is:
“Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.
Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.
Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."
Ryssdal: I'm gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that's already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?
Carson: What I'm saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You're always gonna ask the same question every year. And we're just gonna keep going down that pathway. That's one of the things I think that the people are tired of.”
The conversation continued for some time in that vein, with the candidate never clearly saying how he would handle the looming crisis.
It’s not the first time that Carson has, at least in the eyes of the national media, given answers to questions that seemed puzzling at best or alarming at worst. In discussing the recent shootings at a community college in Oregon, Carson has repeatedly appeared to criticize the victims for not being more aggressive toward the shooter.
When a CBS anchor pointed out to him that a former soldier who charged the shooter had been shot several times and was unable to subdue him, Carson seemed unaware of that fact, and said that “verifies what I'm saying.”
He added, “That's exactly what should be done and if everybody does that, the likelihood of him being able to kill as many people diminishes quite significantly.”
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper last month, Carson suggested that a devout Muslim would not be acceptable as president of the United States – an idea expressly rejected in Article Six of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that no religious test is permitted to qualify for public office.
However, so far at least, Carson’s missteps in the eyes of the national media haven’t been seen as a problem in the country as a whole. His comments about Muslims in the White House were actually widely supported in many states and were viewed positively by a number of participants in the Bloomberg focus groups. Likewise, his comments about the Oregon shooting appear to have done little to affect his support in early primary states.
What that means as the election goes forward is unclear at this point, but the fact that there is a disconnect between how the media views Carson and how voters see him is becoming crystal clear.