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A Ben Carson Surge May Test Trump

One question we’ve asked about Donald Trump’s campaign is what would happen if another candidate were to get a surge of media coverage, throwing a wrench in the works of Trump’s perpetual attention machine. Based on the latest polls, we may soon get the best test of this question since Trump entered the race.

The potential surger is Ben Carson, the much-awarded neurosurgeon who is running for political office for the first time. Carson is near the top of the Republican field in two new polls of Iowa. A Monmouth University poll has Carson with 23 percent of the vote and tied for the lead with Trump, while the Des Moines Register’s poll has Carson in second place, with 18 percent of the vote to Trump’s 23 percent. Carson has also been gaining ground in national polls and is in second place behind Trump, according to Huffington Post Pollster’s averaging method.

Carson’s gains in the polls have come organically — in fact, he’s been receiving remarkably little media attention. From June 28 through Aug. 20, Carson received only 0.9 percent of the news coverage of the top 161 Republican candidates, based on the number of Google News “hits” he received. That puts him at 14th in the field. Trump has received about 60 times more media coverage than Carson.


While it can be foolish to predict what happens to the polls in the short run, there’s a pretty obvious case to be made that Carson is on an upswing as part of a “discovery, scrutiny and decline” polling cycle of the sort that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain (among others) experienced in 2011. If Carson’s doing this well with so little media attention, imagine what happens when he gets some. Polls will trigger more coverage of Carson’s campaign, which will in turn improve his standing in the polls, which will produce yet more coverage, and so forth.

Carson also has outstanding favorability ratings among Republicans, which could give him more room to grow. And it’s not as though he’s a dull story to cover. While Carson is more mild-mannered than Trump — and possibly a lot smarter — he, like Trump, has a history of stoking controversy through impolitic statements.

The question is what happens to Trump’s numbers when Carson surges. (Or if Carson doesn’t, when another candidate like Ted Cruz inevitably does some weeks or months from now.) If Trump is more like the Gingriches and Cains of the world, his support may erode pretty quickly once there’s another GOP “flavor of the month” who appeals to voters seeking an outsider to mainstream politics. An alternative possibility, however, is that Trump is more like a Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul — a factional candidate who is relatively immune from shifts of opinion elsewhere in the Republican field, but also has a low ceiling on his support. Either way, Trump is not very likely to win the Republican nomination — and neither is Carson — but we’ll learn something about the nature of his support.


  1. Sorry, Jim Gilmore — we didn’t collect data on you.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.