Candidates competing for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination are getting ready for Tuesday's debate, and Dr. Ben Carson is likely to face more difficult questioning in Milwaukee than he’s seen so far in his campaign. The retired neurosurgeon has breached the top of the Republican pack and has already been the subject of deep media scrutiny over suspicions that he mischaracterized portions of his past.
Carson’s approval seems resilient to the attacks for now, a possible indication that his supporters may be less concerned with the notion that he’s not being completely truthful than they are with what has been characterized as attacks on Republicans from liberal media. But while Carson may be wise to take a hard stance against his media criticism at this point, crisis communications experts say his campaign needs to be wary of the potential for things to spiral out of control.
“The idea that you’re supposed to respond to every criticism with a groveling apology is a creation of the [public relations] industry, and it really doesn’t have much place in modern divisive politics,” said Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm. “Based upon the comments I’ve seen, [Carson] said he didn’t misrepresent anything, and that seems to be working for him. Now, we don’t know what else is going to come out. That’s the biggest problem with my business, is you never know which way the cat is going to jump. So, but for now, I think he’s doing the right thing.”
Carson’s personal narrative -- told through his biographies, a made-for-TV film and especially his campaign -- has proved elusive for journalists to verify at key points. There are several inconsistencies that have been called into question, including one story that involves Carson receiving praise from a professor at Yale University for honesty for sticking around to finish an exam. Another involves a teenage Carson attempting to stab a friend in the gut but breaking the knife on the victim's belt buckle before running away. In yet another, Carson said he had a gun pressed to his ribs in a Baltimore Popeyes fast-food restaurant.
For all of the stories, reporters have been unable to independently verify the events that make up Carson's complicated backstory. A professor said the Yale class Carson claimed he was in didn’t exist at the time. The potential stabbing victim hasn’t been identified. No police record of a fried chicken holdup exists from that time.
Yet each time he’s been questioned, Carson has deflected. He posted a syllabus on Facebook for the class he said he took -- from years later but with a matching name and course number. He swatted away questions about his failed knife attack by saying he wouldn’t release the name unless the person he went after said it’s all right. He promised, citing his religion as proof of his honesty, that he’d been held at gunpoint.
Carson, who just last week polled as the most trusted candidate in the 2016 field and is inching closer and closer to front-runner status in averages of polls, may end up getting a pass on the aforementioned inconsistencies. Still, experts warned that he needs to make sure he doesn't have any skeletons in the closet that could be exploited by other campaigns.
“There’s a lot that is unraveling here, and for him it’s kind of: What’s the bottom of the barrel?” said Rob Volmer, president of Crosby-Volmer International Communications, which handles crisis management communications. “Normally in crisis communications, it’s a finite thing that’s happened and you’re trying to get a hold and a grasp of what that is. In this case it’s kind of more like a web. He’s said a web of different things.”
For now, Carson’s message and defense of his biographical anecdotes will likely resonate with Republican primary voters, who are deeply distrustful of mainstream media outlets posing questions about his history. Eventually, the nominating process could lead him to face more moderate voters who may not be so readily accepting of his defense that it’s all a misinterpretation by journalists.
“Carson is No. 1 because basically there isn’t anyone in the Republican electorate who doesn’t like him, and if he loses that likability factor, he’s going to go south fast,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked for the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign, said. “He’s got to cut down on the verbal miscues. He’s been given a lot of leeway, and thus far they have not hurt him. But eventually the political laws of gravity are going to kick in. Everything else [he] say[s] is going to be magnified now.”