As a Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson has said that:
- The likelihood of the Holocaust “would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed” in Nazi Germany.
- He would not support a Muslim for president.
- Lives would have been saved in the Oregon mass shooting if the victims had attacked the shooter, adding, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”
- Obamacare was the “worst thing” to happen to the U.S. since slavery.
- He believes being gay is a choice because “a lot of people … go into prison straight, and when they come out they’re gay.”
- The gold standard would be a stronger currency valuation.
- The nation’s electrical grid is vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse from the sun.
- He does not know if President Obama is a Christian, only allowing “I have to take him at his word” that he is.
Those comments have been dissected across network news, ridiculed on nighttime and daytime talk shows and slammed by various advocacy groups.
But to his fans, Carson is simply a “nice,” “rational” and “a really genuine guy.” During his three-state tour across America earlier this month, everywhere he went, Carson was met with cheering crowds full of ardent supporters who were quick to dismiss the controversies and criticism because, simply, they like Dr. Ben Carson.
“There’s just so much about him that we trust,” said Maureen Edsen, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom who brought three of her four young kids to see Carson speak in Ankeny, Iowa, last week.
Asked about the recent controversy over his comments opposing the idea of a Muslim president, she said: “There’s something about him that when things like that are said, I guess I take it with a grain of salt.”
It’s that “something” — Carson’s calm demeanor, disarming wit and inspiring personal story — that has emerged as one of his greatest assets on the campaign trail as he vies with Donald Trump for first place in the GOP field.
His often incendiary comments aren’t new — Carson first made national headlines with his direct challenge to President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013 — but his popularity hasn’t diminished as he’s added to the number of controversial remarks as a candidate under the increased scrutiny that’s come with his status. Instead, his appeal has only grown.
Two polls out this week showed Carson leading the pack in Iowa, surging ahead of Trump by nine points in the most recent survey, from the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News.
He raised the most of any candidate in the GOP field in the third quarter, and the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found him to be the most popular candidate in the 2016 field.
“There’s something about him that when things like that are said, I guess I take it with a grain of salt.”
And though his tendency toward rhetorical bomb-throwing rivals Trump’s, he thus far hasn’t had to contend with the same level of hand-wringing and calls to exit the race from party elders. Charlie Black, who served as John McCain’s campaign chairman in 2008, said that’s because his personal style overshadows his words.
“Dr. Carson’s personality and likeability causes people to cut him some slack,” he said, when asked why Carson’s gotten away with saying things that might have felled a more traditional politician.
“He comes from outside the political world, where what you say and your observations are more like someone in the public sphere,” Black said.
Carson’s affable disposition acts as both a defense against attacks from other candidates, who seem wary of taking on the nicest guy in the field, and a defense against himself, when he blunders into another jaw-dropping gaffe.
And, at times, it can seem like Carson’s supporters have seen an entirely different candidate from the one presented in the media.
“I think Dr. Carson has a lot of really refreshing new ideas, and the way he proposes things is with a great deal of finesse and a great deal of professionalism, without putting down other candidates,” Amanda Sobel, a grad student at the University of New Hampshire said after his town hall there last week.
She said the way he addressed issues was “very refreshing, very inspiring — even his stances on race in this country, that we need to be getting people to work together and love their neighbors.”
No matter that Carson had joked during that town hall about running from cops “back in the day, before they would shoot you.” Or that the day before he said progressives are “racist” because “they don’t believe that if you are black you have the ability you be an independent thinker.”
Asked about the cop comment, Sobel dismissed the controversy as America being “too overly sensitive about everything that comes out of people’s mouths.”
Indeed, many of his supporters say they appreciate his willingness to stand up to what he calls the “PC police,” which Carson’s warned could send America down the path to tyranny.
Rebecca Sykes, a 36-year-old mother of five, brought her family to Berean Baptist Church in North Carolina to see the man she and her children learn about during their homeschooling sessions. They’ve read his books, she said, and “Dr. Ben Carson is a hero for us.”
“I appreciate that he loves the Lord,” she added, and “that he stands against the political incorrectness of our world. I want my young men to see a man who stands for what he believes in.”
Carson’s earned their trust because of the way he acts on the stump, but also because of the way he’s lived. He tells it on every stump: The inspiring up-from-nothing tale of a troubled inner-city boy who, through a focus on education and God, became a world-reknowned, decorated pediatric neurosurgeon.
He founded a successful educational charity, and quite literally saved tens of thousands of infants’ lives. There’s evidence, too, that his personal story could expand the GOP tent.
Sharon Craver, the executive assistant to the CEO of Victory Junction, a camp for kids with special health needs in North Carolina that Carson toured, said she’s a registered Democrat and has never voted for a Republican before.
But Carson, she said, was a Republican “I could potentially see myself voting for,” because he “sounds very smart and has helped children.“ “Anybody that takes care of kids and has a heart for kids is somebody to have a serious thought for president,” she said.
And a man who’s seen so much success at something so complex must be, as Carson’s supporters said at nearly every event, smart.
He occasionally peppers his speeches with complicated medical terms, but they never confuse; Carson is adept at explaining complex subjects in simple terms.
Someone that smart, they seem to say, must know what he’s talking about when he warns of an “electromagnetic pulse from the sun” knocking out our electrical grid; or when he says being gay is a choice because people go into prison straight and come out gay.
That was the calculation John Breschia, a senior at the University of New Hampshire who attended Carson’s town hall there, made about Carson’s stance on evolution.
The senior English major said he’s not a creationist and believes in evolution himself, but appreciates the way in which Carson explained his own skepticism with the concept, which was that “God gave the creatures he made the ability to adapt to their environment.”
“He didn’t actually say this,” Breschia said, “but what I interpreted it as is he doesn’t actually believe that evolution just happened. He believes that God made it so that evolution is part of God’s plan for a beautiful world.”
He added: “It’s great that a man of science can also believe in God, that he can reconcile two opposing viewpoints and bring them together into something that’s understandable and believable for everyone.”
Carson’s advisers know his personality is one of the candidate’s main assets. Communications Director Doug Watts said that in early focus groups, they found that voters knew a remarkable amount about Carson’s life and story, and everything they felt about him was positive.
“It’s great that a man of science can also believe in God."
Watts said that a few intangibles — that he’s “authentic, unguarded, soft-spoken, disarmingly honest” — come across when Carson’s on the stump or in a television studio and help him overcome some of his perhaps poorly-chosen words.
“People tend to find the positive and the informative and the substantive message of what he’s saying, and overlook some of the mistakes or some of the more garbled expressions because they’re feeling an affinity for him,” Watts said.
But his advisers also know that Carson may not enjoy that advantage forever.
Watts acknowledged “of course we are” concerned about how Carson’s comments could impact his viability. “They do have an accrual effect on the personality of a candidate.”