Ben Carson went from respected neurosurgeon to conservative hero in 27 minutes -- the length of his speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where he criticized Obamacare with the president just two seats to his right. Now Carson is trying to parlay his adoration among conservatives and tea party groups into a run for president, announcing Tuesday that he formed an exploratory committee, a precursor to a White House bid. But while Carson enjoys strong grassroots support, he faces a number of obstacles should he pursue a presidential campaign.
Carson, who at 33 years old became the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, is known politically for his oratory skills and railing against the Affordable Care Act. His name is often among the top five in the latest polls out of about a dozen possible 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
But Carson’s ability to energize crowds comes with liabilities. For one thing, he’s gaffe-prone. He compared Obamacare to slavery. On Wednesday, he said he believes that being gay is a choice, because there’s no other explanation for why some people enter prison straight and come out gay.
And while Carson, 63, has loyal supporters, he doesn’t have seasoned campaign operatives for a grueling campaign, according to Katie Packer Gage, a Republican political consultant with Burning Glass Consulting who served as deputy campaign manager for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“I think that he is a very inspirational speaker and he is very clearly a smart person, and so he’s able to communicate his message in a very appealing way. But I think something we’ve learned over time is that it takes more than that to win a presidential campaign, and I don’t see him having other pieces in place that will make him long term a particularly viable option,” Gage said. “He doesn’t seem to have a team around him to protect him from gaffes and missteps and misstating policy positions.”
To that point, Carson is set to tap Terry Giles, a Houston-based lawyer whose past clients include Richard Pryor (after the comedian set himself on fire during a cocaine binge in 1980) and a teacher who claimed to have an affair with Monica Lewinsky, as his campaign manager, according to Politico and the Texas Tribune.
Meanwhile, Carson has ambitious goals of raising $130 million for his campaign and taking the largest share of the general election popular vote since Ronald Reagan’s 55 percent in 1984, according to Politico. Gage said that’s unrealistic for a political newcomer with no donor network. “I don’t know if he’s like rubbing a magic lamp or wishing upon a star, but that’ll be a tough thing for [potential 2016 GOP candidate] Jeb Bush, and he has most of the high-level bundlers with him,” she said.
Another problem for Carson is that he’s a one-issue candidate; he is a respected voice on health care but little else. “There does come a time in a campaign where it becomes more than just getting a crowd off its feet. It always does become more important on the presidential stage because when push comes to shove, you can’t run the country focusing on just one issue. You have to be well versed and have a grasp of a really broad range of issues,” Gage said. “He certainly knows a lot about Obamacare, but he doesn’t have the breadth and depth of issues to carry him in the long term,” she said.
Before his National Prayer Breakfast speech, Carson was known for his inspiring story emerging from poverty in inner-city Detroit, Michigan, to a renowned neurosurgeon who became the first doctor to successfully separate conjoined twins at the head. That success made him a role model, especially in the black community. But his story won’t translate into crossover appeal with both tea party voters and African-Americans because blacks will separate his personal experience from his political positions, according to Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“In terms of his life story and overcoming poverty and becoming a world-class neurosurgeon … I think that that part of his legacy is always going to be there,” Gillespie said. But “Ben Carson as a political figure is entirely different, and the audience that is attracted to him as a political figure, that constituency is different from the constituency that’s heard the story. Ben Carson has not had broad appeal as a potential presidential candidate in the African-American community,” she added.
Part of the reason blacks aren’t enthralled by a potential Carson campaign is because he’s not viewed as a realistic presidential nominee, Gillespie said. She noted that in 2007 blacks were reluctant to support then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D.-Ill., until he proved he was viable with a win in the Iowa caucuses, a Midwestern state that is roughly 93 percent white.
“While Carson has done well in some of these early straw polls, we’re still a year away from early primaries. I think most people don’t realistically think he’s got a serious chance for the Republican nomination for president,” Gillespie said, before adding, “African-Americans have often shied away from political candidates that they didn’t think were viable.”
Gillespie said Carson’s campaign is comparable with that of 2012 GOP candidate Herman Cain, who, like Carson, is black, had tea party support and was a political neophyte. But as a former CEO, Cain was at least listened to on economic issues in a way that Carson will be ignored -- and it still didn’t lead Cain to the GOP nomination or broad support among blacks. “Even somebody like Herman Cain appeared to do more outreach in African-American communities, and his presidential candidacy was not successful, so the idea that African-Americans would be drawn to Republican primaries and to the Republican Party in 2016 because of Ben Carson suggests that’s not the case,” she said.
Gage said the fairer comparisons are the 2012 candidacies of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who all had brief moments in the sun before flaming out. “There’s a lot of candidates that excite the grassroots and talk about what the grassroots are thinking,” she said. “Ultimately people will be given pause, and he’ll ultimately be a flash in the pan,” she conceded.
Carson not having held elected office may be an attractive quality to voters disgusted with Washington, D.C., but candidates with campaign experience will be able to pounce on the retired neurosurgeon’s vulnerabilities, according to Gage.
“There hasn’t been a campaign against this guy yet,” she said. “The minute he becomes a very serious contender, the hordes of opposition researchers are going to dig up the things that make him a wrong choice.”