The Beginning Of The End Of Ben Carson Seems To Have Arrived

In the news from the campaign trail and in the polls, there are clear signs that Ben Carson's days as a top contender in the GOP Presidential race are coming to an end.

Ben Carson Profile

Ever since the first Republican debate in August, Ben Carson has been rising in the polls both nationally and at the state level, most prominently in Iowa where he has been of obvious appeal to the evangelicals who dominate the Republican Party in the Hawkeye State. The more prominent Carson has become, though, the more he has been subjected to media scrutiny and found wanting and, now, there are signs that his star may be falling in the same way that those of candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain did four years ago:

Donald Trump has by now demonstrated that he’s not merely another fad candidate in the Republican presidential race. Dr. Ben Carson, on the other hand, still has a lot to prove.

At the start of the month, Carson overtook Trump in the national polling averageand in the key early states of Iowa and South Carolina. He also moved into a close second behind Trump in New Hampshire. And he seemed to have the potential to rise higher, with Republicans giving Carson the highest marks of any candidate — by far — on personal favorability.

But with this rise to the top has come a new level of scrutiny from the press and from his opponents. And there are now clear signs that Carson is not holding up well under the spotlight.

Three weeks ago, an NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll showed Carson tied with Trump at 26 percent. But now the poll shows that Carson has fallen 10 points behind Trump and is tied for second place with a surging Ted Cruz. There is evidence of slippage elsewhere, too.

In New Hampshire, Carson pulled within two points of Trump in a WBUR poll at the start of the month. But this week, that same poll shows Carson falling back to 13 percent — 10 points behind Trump and tied with Marco Rubio. A new Fox News poll in the Granite State has Carson at just 9 percent — tied for fourth with Jeb Bush.

The NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll paints a clear picture of what’s happening: At the heart of Carson’s rise has been the support of white evangelical voters, who hold particular sway in Iowa (where they accounted for nearly 60% of all caucus-goers in 2012) and South Carolina (where they made up 64 percent of the 2012 primary electorate). At the start of this month, Carson was comfortably ahead with white evangelicals, netting 33 percent of their support. But in the last three weeks, Carson has lost a quarter of that support. At the same time, Cruz has leaped from 7 percent to 22 percent among white evangelicals — pulling into a virtual tie with Carson and Trump.

The movement is even more striking with Republicans who describe themselves as “very conservative.” With this group, Carson’s support has been sliced in half in the last three weeks, from 30 percent to 15 percent, while Cruz has jumped from 25 percent to 40 percent.

Picking up on the same theme, Politico’s Katie Guleck finds signs that conservatives in Iowa who have been rallying around Carson are starting to look elsewhere, specifically to Texas Senator Ted Cruz:

Hours after terrorists attacked a hotel in Mali and a week after Islamic State fighters struck Paris, Ted Cruz took the floor here to deliver a harsh critique of President Obama’s Middle East posture and pledge a hardline approach to Syrian Muslim refugees.

It was exactly what this crowd of mostly conservative Christians wanted – and an ominous sign for Iowa’s weakened frontrunner, Ben Carson.

Across the state and at a major gathering of politically active evangelicals on Friday night, foreign policy was top-of-mind for the voters and state lawmakers once considered natural constituents for Carson. But after a week of confused comments from the former neurosurgeon and a dismissive critique by his own advisors, Iowans are now consistently voicing doubt about Carson’s credentials to be commander-in-chief.

Indeed, they said the terrorist attacks have reordered the candidates in their mind, lifting Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio and, for many, making Carson an afterthought.

“He’s a great guy, he’s fun to listen to, but I didn’t hear anything substantive,” said Alan Hilgerson, a Des Moines-based physician who said national security is an “extremely high” priority for him as he considers the 2016 contenders vying for Iowa. Of Carson, he continued, “I don’t know that I’d want him as my president.”

Worse yet for Carson, at the Family Leader Forum organized by social-conservative icon Bob Vander Plaats, voters said the more they thought about Carson’s foreign policy credentials, the less comfortable they were with him.

Marilu Erdahl – who drove two-and-a-half hours in the snow to see the candidates speak, making her exactly the kind of Republican the candidates count on during the wintry caucuses – said she entered the event torn between Cruz and Carson. But as she talked through the importance of national defense, she decided on Cruz. “He has experience, he’s shown what he can do,” she said of Cruz. “With the state of affairs we’re in right now, I think it is very important. It’s vital…We need someone who knows the ropes, who’s not the establishment but who doesn’t need on-the-job training.”

She went on: “I guess I’ve maybe made up my mind.”

Carson and Cruz have been racing toward this collision in Iowa for weeks. Both have been courting the same Christian conservative community that makes up a crucial bloc of the state’s caucus electorate. But the turning point came when security and foreign policy were forced to the top of the GOP agenda by the terrorist attacks.

Carson landed here fresh off a string of fumbles that included struggling to name countries he’d ask to join a coalition to fight the group known as ISIS or ISIL and smarting from a New York Times story the featured one of his own foreign policy advisers saying the candidate was struggling to grasp key issues.

The momentum, according to activists, state lawmakers and other voters here, now appears to be with Cruz. And he seems to know it.

“On the Republican side, I think the Paris attacks infuse a greater seriousness to the search for who is prepared to be commander-in-chief, who has the experience, who has the judgment, who has the understanding of the very real and growing threats facing America,” Ted Cruz told POLITICO in an interview in Iowa.

“The overlay of the Paris attacks, even today, the horrific attack in Mali, makes clear that we need a president who’s prepared on Day 1 to understand the nature of the threats facing America and to lead this country in standing up to these threats and defending our citizens from the growing menace of radical Islamic terrorism,” he said on the sidelines of the Family Leader event.


In interviews with voters and activists at stops in conservative western Iowa and then at the presidential forum in Des Moines, it was clear they do not see Carson as equally up to the challenge. In fact, the characteristics once cited by voters here as boosting Carson – his soft-spoken nature and disinterest in attacking his competition, for example — are now seen as problematic.

“Carson, he’s a wonderful guy, but we like Cruz better,” said Judy Kirby of Des Moines, who said she is gravely concerned about foreign policy in the wake of several high-profile terrorist attacks. Cruz “seems more knowledgeable, he seems stronger.”

Voters described Carson as “lacking fire in the belly,” as being a nice person but too “soft-spoken,” and said he doesn’t come across as sufficiently tough. That’s in contrast to both Donald Trump, a tough talker who pledges to “bomb the sh** out of” ISIL, and Cruz and Rubio, who have both sought to demonstrate Senate-acquired policy chops.

“It’s probably one of [Carson’s] weakest stances,” said Chris Boley, a business owner who attended the Family Leader event and is now leaning toward Rubio. “That doesn’t mean he can’t get up to speed, but he has some catching up to do…In this day and age, with how important national defense is, with terrorism in the Middle East, you’ve got to be real studied.”

Seemingly confirming the conclusions that these reports are reaching, a slew of new national and state polls show Ben Carson clearly beginning to slip in the polls while candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz begin to rise.

On the national level, the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, Donald Trump remains at the top of the field at 32% and Carson holds steady at 22%, however both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz show signs of inching up on the man in second place. Rubio has moved up one point from 10% to 11%, and Cruz has moved from 6% to 8%. In the new Fox News poll, though, Trump has jumped four points from 24% to 28% while Carson has slipped five points from 23% to 18%. In that same poll, both Rubio and Cruz saw their numbers increase three points from the last Fox poll and are now tied at 14%, nine points behind Carson. In both polls, there was little movement on the part of the other candidates. Looking at the national poll averages, Trump now has a 7.7 point lead nationally over Carson according to RealClearPolitics, and a 22 point lead according to Pollster. More importantly, the charts at both sites show what seems to be the beginning of a dip for Carson in the national polling numbers.

It’s in the state-level polling, though, that we see the best evidence that Ben Carson’s days as a top contender for the Republican nomination appear to be coming to an end.

CBS News is out with new polling in three early primary states, and while Donald Trump continues to lead strongly in all three the real story is about what’s happening below him. In Iowa, for example, where Carson had started to surge, Trump is back at the top of the field at 30%, and Carson has fallen to third place at 19%. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has surpassed Carson in the the Hawkeye State to take second place behind Trump at 21%.  Marco Rubio comes in fourth in that poll as the only other candidate in double digits. This gives Trump a 4.7 point lead in the poll average in Iowa, and while Carson is in second in the average he is clearly sinking. In New Hampshire, Trump is at 32% in the new CBS poll followed by Marco Rubio at 13% and Ted Cruz and Carson tied at 10%, while a new Boston Globe poll in the Granite State gives Trump 22%, followed by Rubio at 11%, Carson at 10%, and Cruz at 9%. These two polls leave Trump with a 16.6 point average lead according to RealClearPolitics, with Rubio, Cruz, and Carson, in that order, behind him. Finally, in South Carolina, Trump is at 35% in the new CBS poll, with Carson at 19%, Rubio at 16%, and Cruz at 13%. This gives Trump a 5.7 point lead in the Palmetto State, with Carson the only other candidate averaging above 20% but clearly fading.

All of these numbers, taken together, seem to clearly indicate that Ben Carson is heading downward.

On some level, Carson’s fall from grace, if that’s what we’re really seeing begin to unfold here, doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. Notwithstanding the fact that he quickly became something of a star among the evangelical right and other parts of the conservative base of the Republican Party,Ben Carson has always seemed like he never really belonged on the stage with the rest of the candidates. He lacked the electoral and government experience of the vast majority of the fellow candidates, and even the business experience of Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. More importantly, he has never really acted like a fairly eager candidate for President and has never really demonstrated the “fire in the belly” enthusiasm you usually see from someone running for the highest office in the land. To some degree, of course, his more soft-spoken style and, for the most part, seeming nonchalance when it came to responding to attacks by the media or fellow candidates was something that set him apart in a way that likely attracted voters and certainly has made him intriguing to a media more used to the style of Trump and Chris Christie. As time went on, though, Carson has not really held up to scrutiny and it seems as though the Paris attacks are causing the bloom to come off the rose as voters start to get more serious about their choices next year.

From the beginning, Carson’s stardom on the right took a path that suggested he would be, at best, another example of one of those conservative shootings that rises to prominence only to dim out quickly under scrutiny. After gaining notereity by speaking out against the President to his face at a National Prayer Breakfast, Carson went on to gain prominence by making a long series of utterly outrageous statements about public policy issues and ascribing malicious motives and even mental illness to those who disagree with him such as President Obama. This only seemed to increase Carson’s prominence on the right, though, and his entry into the Presidential race was well-received, as demonstrated by surprisingly good fundraising numbers in both of the reporting quarters we’ve seen so far and, as I said, rising poll numbers. Recent weeks, though, have revealed Carson’s weaknesses.

In both debates and appearances on television, Carson has demonstrated ignorance about the operating of government as well as the details of important domestic public policy issues. In addition to this, of course, he has displayed what can only be called an odd relationship with the truth, including many of the details of his personal biography.  Under pressure, Carson resorted to attacking the media even though it is rather obvious that he is not being treated unfairly. Perhaps the thing that is proving fatal to Carson now, though, is foreign policy. Starting in the most recent Republican debate on Fox News Channel, Carson has displayed what can only be called utter incoherence on basic foreign policy matters, something that has even been confirmed by those brought in to advise him on the issue. Given the prominence that foreign policy now appears to be taking on in the race, the fact that voters may be looking elsewhere isn’t entirely surprising, nor is it surprising that it would be Carson, rather than Trump, that would be top tier candidate that would seem the most likely to lose ground because of the new focus of the race.

As for who might benefit if we really are seeing the beginning of the end of the Carson surge, we’re already seeing that Cruz is a good possibility at least in Iowa largely because he appeals to many of the same voters that Carson does and because he’s been building up a more solid foreign policy resume than Carson could ever hope to have. Indeed, there have been several observers who have been anticipating that we would see a Ted Cruz surge at some point before the Iowa Caucuses. Cruz’s campaign, in fact, has clearly been laying the groundwork for such an contingency, although it has seemed as though they’ve been anticipating that it would be Trump, not Carson, who would be the candidate to fall from grace. That’s one of the reasons that Cruz has seemingly been the only candidate on the main debate stage to refrain from vigorous attacks against Trump. The logic of that being that Cruz would benefit more by not annoying Trump supporters than he would by attacking Trump. If the Senator from Texas does indeed end up rising at the expense of Carson, he can expect to become the focus of Trump’s attacks just as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Carson himself have been notwithstanding the fact that there has been something of a de facto truce between the two men until this point.

Beyond Cruz, a decline by Carson, if it continues to manifest itself in the polls, would likely also help Marco Rubio, who is actually performing better in the polls than Cruz both nationally and in New Hampshire and South Carolina at the moment. Like Cruz, Rubio has built up a reputation inside the GOP as a go go voice on foreign policy on the right. That, of course, portends the possibility that Cruz and Rubio will end up having to fight it out for the position that Carson may or may not be ceding.

All of this depends, of course, on the idea that Carson is indeed starting to fade. These reports are early, but that certainly seems to be where things are headed. If that’s how it pans out then December could see some real shake ups in the Republican field.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. CSK says:

    Doug, is Rubio really a “go go” voice on foreign policy? I don’t think he’d look all that inspiring wearing white vinyl boots and shimmying in a cage over a bar.

    Though it would certainly out-Trump Trump in the clown department…:D

  2. grumpy realist says:

    What’s going to be interesting is when Trump and Cruz face off against each other.

    I can only root for injuries.

    And then there’s ol’ Jeb!, bringing up the rear….

    I suspect that if Cruz continues to grab support, we may start to see a look at him again from the mainstream Republicans.

  3. Cruz is likely to face renewed scrutiny now, and probably attacks from Trump. And, yes, it will be fun to watch.

  4. Gustopher says:

    There have been a lot of stories about “Trump about to implode” or “Carson about to fall” and they all boil down to a tick in the polls or the discovery of something that we would all hope would be disqualifying but somehow isn’t for Republicans.

    I treat all these stories as wishful thinking.

    I expect each of them will collapse at some point, but I have no idea when or what the cause will be. I expect it will be something shockingly stupid that sweeps through the right wing media, rather than a slow fade in the polls.

  5. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    If Cruz becomes first-runner up, Trump is going to have to go on the attack. Though Trump’s promises are always writ on water, he did swear he’d go after any candidate who encroaches on his turf, and he did go after Carson, comparing him, at least implicitly, to a child molester. (It occurs to me that Trump, with his quasi-incestuous comments about his daughter’s hot body, probably should avoid the subject of pedophilia.)

    The question is: How will he attack Cruz, who’s carefully avoided criticizing him? Cruz was, of course, planning on Trump flaming out before this, and collecting his supporters. Now that that seems somewhat less likely to happen, how will Cruz respond to an assault by Trump?

  6. M. Bouffant says:

    W/ terrorism & furriners in general back at the top of the list of what frightens Republicans today, the base doesn’t think Ben Carson is shouty enough to scare the terrorists into surrendering.

  7. M. Bouffant says:

    Family values? Social conservatism? “Trump’s not a real Bible-believing Christian like we are.”

    That would seem to be the only area where differences could be drawn.

  8. CSK says:

    @M. Bouffant:

    Well, Trump could regale them with the tale of how he romanced Marla Maples at the Marble Collegiate Church Sunday services whilst still wed to Ivana, whom he married in the same church. That would imbue him with the odor of sanctity, wouldn’t it?

  9. Cian says:

    God knows how far the craziness is going to go- Don’t be surprised if you hear tomorrow that Trump has called Carson “weak on torture”. Apparently Carson is only interested in torturing our enemies for information, not pleasure, like a real American. I swear, just wait. it’s coming.

  10. Mikey says:


    The question is: How will he attack Cruz, who’s carefully avoided criticizing him? Cruz was, of course, planning on Trump flaming out before this, and collecting his supporters. Now that that seems somewhat less likely to happen, how will Cruz respond to an assault by Trump?

    I have braved the fever-swamp and somehow emerged with most of my IQ points intact, and I can report the people over at “Right Wing News” are convinced Trump is going to ask Cruz to be his running mate (the embedded link is to Allen West’s site, you’ve been warned):

    Well, this just made my day a whole bunch brighter! I think this is terrific, but I’m not really surprised. I actually predicted this would happen last summer as I saw the two of them meeting and appearing together. It makes total sense. They are the two strongest opponents of Obama’s out there, so why wouldn’t they join forces and bring back the Reagan era? Polls are now showing Trump running away with the nomination – he has, depending on the poll, between 38% and 51% behind him now and it is growing. He’s speaking out against the refugees that Obama is bringing in, along with ISIS. Trump is going after the mosques. He’s pounding on the illegal immigration issue too. And don’t forget jobs – an issue that Americans are clamoring for. Picking Cruz ensures that if Trump gets the nod, this will be a landslide victory. It will be historic.

    They do have one thing partly right: a Trump/Cruz GOP ticket would lead to an historic landslide victory. They’re just wrong about the winners.

  11. CSK says:


    Yeah, I know; I’ve seen similar commentary. It brings news dimensions to the word “delusional.”

    But if Cruz should overtake Trump in the polls…what then? Will the Trumpistas talk about what a great v.p. Trump will make in the Cruz administration?

    And there’s another ingredient in the mix–Trump has reiterated his threat to go third party if the Republicans don’t treat him “fairly,” whatever that means. Will he take Cruz with him? If so, Hillary Clinton can stop campaigning now. She won’t have to campaign.

  12. James Pearce says:

    I’m not sure if abandoning Carson for Cruz is a sign of a thought process or further proof of its absence.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    Cruz strikes people with an ‘uncanny valley’ thing. There’s something off-putting about him. That’s what Trump will attack, he’ll play on that. “He’s a nice guy, but would you want him babysitting your little children?” That kind of thing.

    Cruz will fire back on the phony Christian angle.

    That’ll be interesting. The belligerent drunk with a shark’s instinct for blood, versus the manipulative, slimy psychopath.

    Will they manage to hurt each other? Or will they just draw focus away from poor Marco Rubio?

  14. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That’ll be interesting. The belligerent drunk with a shark’s instinct for blood, versus the manipulative, slimy psychopath

    Which is which?

    I would have pegged both of them as arrogant schoolyard bully and left it at that.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    If the GOP establishment had any balls they’d call on Bush, Kasich, Fiorina and Christie to drop out and support Rubio. If Rubio could harvest say 70% of that vote he’d be the front-runner.

    If Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire – a distinct possibility – I’ll be damned if I see how anyone’s going to stop him getting the nom. New Hampshire is February 9th, about 11 weeks out. That’s how long the GOP has to stop Trump.

    As a Democrat I’d rather try to beat Trump. But as an American I worry because once it’s down to Trump vs. Hillary we are one health scare away from President Trump.

  16. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I enjoy your characterizations above, but I’m not altogether sure Trump is a belligerent drunk, though he does act like one. I think he’s a belligerent oaf who’s gotten a lot of mileage out of being a belligerent oaf, so is augmenting the performance.

    And I’m not sure Cruz is a psychopath more than he is the reincarnation of Uriah Heep.

    So maybe… a belligerent oaf with a shark’s instinct for blood versus a slimy, manipulative, unctuous creep?

  17. michael reynolds says:


    Trump is having fun. He’s showing he can step into a completely unfamiliar game and win it. But the goal for him is narcissistic, it’s all about his ego. In a fight he’s the guy who’ll start throwing chairs.

    Cruz is cold and calculating and very smart. He’s devoid of conscience and has his eye very clearly focused on his goal, which is power. In a fight he’s the guy who pulls the razor out of his sleeve. He worries me more.

    Trump talks evil, but I don’t think he actually is. Cruz is a different animal. Cruz is Frank Underwood. Cruz would kill a guy up close and personal if it suited his purpose.

  18. charon says:


    People are laughing at Carson, for example the spoof Saturday Night Live just did on him. Once people think you are ridiculous and are laughing at you, your political career is terminal. Grain storage pyramids, stabby belt buckles, huge painting of Carson and Jesus together – only question now is how fast and how far his poll numbers deteriorate.

    It’s like Demon Sheep and “I am not a witch,” not survivable.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @charon: The demon sheep and “I am not a witch” doomed candidates in the general election, but I doubt the primary voters would have cared. Republican primary voters are opposed to demon sheep, and want a candidate who isn’t afraid to say it. They want a candidate who isn’t a witch, and isn’t afraid to embrace their non-witchness.

    Everything about Carson can be dismissed as “liberal media attacks black man for not being democrat” or “attack on his faith”.

    It could do him in, but I have so little understanding of why everything else hasn’t done him in that I won’t believe it until it happens.

    And even in the general election, AquaBuddha didn’t hurt Rand Paul.

  20. Cian says:

    I don’t know about Cruz’s chances. Trump supporters just beat the crap out of a black man, and he applauded them for it. Not sure Cruz’s has that kind of crazy in him, and if he can’t find it he can’t win the republican base.

  21. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Anchor husband versus just-barely-not-a-Canadian, competing to see who can build a wall faster to keep in the migrants that, at this point, just want to get back home.

  22. Pch101 says:

    Early campaign successes provide more time for something to go wrong. Presidential campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint.

  23. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Remind me again where you did your psych residency??

  24. Kylopod says:

    I’ve been developing a theory that one of the worst things you can do in a Republican primary is show vulnerability. It explains, among other things, why Rick Perry was supposed to have committed the most epic gaffe ever when he couldn’t remember the name of one of the federal agencies he pledged to close; but this year when Ted Cruz made the exact same mistake, hardly anyone noticed. Why? It all goes back to that word “oops.” If Perry had just blustered his way through his error, he probably would have gotten away with it and wouldn’t have become the walking punchline he turned into; only “fact checkers” (the most irrelevant actors in a GOP debate) would have cared, and no one else would have paid any attention.

    It also helps explain the Carson-Trump dynamic. One of Trump’s defining traits is that he never apologizes for anything, ever, not even one of those trademark quasi-apologies like “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Carson, in contrast, has been backpedaling from many of his most outrageous remarks from the start; he did it even before he was a candidate, following his remarks comparing gays to NAMBLA, and he went on to do it after other remarks–the Nazi Germany one, the prison sex one, among others.

    In just the last month, he has (1) admitted to lying about details of his biography (2) had two advisors essentially admit to the press that he was clueless about foreign policy.

    Moral of the story? In the GOP primary you can be as stupid and ignorant and offensive as you please, so long as you pretend you know what you’re talking about the whole time. To paraphrase what George Burns once said about acting, the secret to running for president is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

  25. NW-Steve says:

    My first reaction to this to imagine that the voters were perhaps coming to their senses.

    Then I realized that Carson’s loss in poll numbers have basically gone to Trump, with a lesser boost for Cruz.

    So, I’m not so optimistic now about that “coming to their senses” hypothesis.

    P.S. If Carson’s poll numbers are indeed going to Trump, how do we understand this to be the “evangelical” vote? Trump isn’t exactly a poster child for that world view.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: You’re reminded me about the story of Darius, the Persian king, who asked the Oracle at Delphi whether he should attack a particular enemy. The response was: “If you attack, a great empire will be destroyed.” So Darius attacked…..

  27. Bill Lefrak says:

    Carson’s end happened when he decided to run. Carson is a district-level candidate masquerading as an erstwhile presidential candidate. In reality his campaign merely is an elaborate book tour. He’ll be out of the contest shortly after New Hampshire. I expect he’ll resurface either with a talk radio show or as a pundit on Fox News.