Many of the traditional rules of politics don’t seem to apply this year, but at least in the case of Ben Carson, they do. Carson, who will skip Thursday’s debate in Detroit and may suspend his campaign for president on Friday, entered the Republican race with no experience in elected office, and like past candidates without any experience in elected office, he failed. Most of the time — with one big Donald-Trump-sized exception — a background in politics is needed for someone to do well when running for president.
Non-traditional candidates like Carson typically go nowhere or enjoy only a fleeting moment of success. Carson fits squarely into the latter category. Carson led in Iowa polls during part of last fall.
Carson was mostly unknown to voters when he stepped onto the national stage. That can be both a blessing and a curse. Largely ignored by the press and his rivals, he was able to shape his own image. But when he started to rise in the polls, they took notice (as has happened in the past). Both Trump and the press began attacking him, including over whether his biography, “Gifted Hands,” contained falsehoods. The press also questioned Carson’s handle on policy details, particularly in foreign affairs.
These attacks worked. Carson’s support began to erode; he finished in fourth place in Iowa and was barely heard from again. A more seasoned politician might have been able to weather the onslaught.
It would be a mistake, though, to say that Carson lost only because he was unprepared for the rigors of a presidential campaign. He also had a history of making the kind of bombastic statements that would hurt almost every politician (except for Trump), as I noted back in December 2014. “No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn’t matter what they are,” Carson said in 2013. “They don’t get to change the definition” of marriage.
Interestingly, none of this made Republican voters like Carson much less. We checked in on the GOP candidates’ net favorability ratings among Republicans — the percentage who approve of a candidate minus the percentage who disapprove — before each of the 10 Republican debates so far. Each time, Carson ranked among the top three candidates, though his numbers declined as voters got to know him better. (He also led all candidates, Democrats and Republicans, in Facebook likes.)
Carson was also the only black major-party candidate in this presidential election cycle, but there’s no evidence that he drew black voters to Republican polling stations. In all of the 13 states for which CNN has posted exit-poll data, there weren’t even enough black voters in the GOP poll to estimate how many of them voted for Carson. In all but two of the 13 states, blacks made up fewer than 5 percent of Republican voters.
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The debates — the main opportunity that many voters have to assess the candidates — didn’t help Carson as the field winnowed. As everyone else was getting more questions, he was getting fewer, and he generally didn’t speak at any other times. By the last debate, Carson got to speak only in response to the six questions directed at him, compared with an average of nearly 10; Trump got 16 questions, 19 replies and eight interruptions. It’s no wonder that Carson, knowing that the debate rules allowed a candidate to respond to attacks, said at one point, “Can somebody attack me, please?”
Carson found out that while nice guys may not always finish last, they usually don’t finish first.
Check out our live coverage of the Republican debate.