Why you should care

Because a Republican candidate has surged ahead in Iowa during each of the last two elections, and it could happen again.

Along the frozen plains of rural Iowa, past cornfields covered in an ocean of snow, there lies a tiny town called Creston with a tiny cafe called the Adams Street Espresso & Soda Shoppe. The quaint diner comfortably seats a few dozen, but on this frigid January day, a hundred or so people are crouched and crammed together to get a glimpse of the one, the only, Ben Carson. He’s got the attention of a preacher, and this heartland crowd of families tells us they like his faith, his humility and — man, oh, man — that self-made rags-to-riches story. Who wouldn’t?

Yet once the stump speech has been made and the selfie-taking fades, most of these residents have one thing they still won’t say: that they’ll unquestionably caucus for the retired neurosurgeon and evangelical hero. “He’s definitely in my top three,” hedges Vonnie Kinkade, a local conservative organizer. Longtime resident and handyman Ron Hower is equally noncommittal, and so is basketball mom Joy Hemsworth.

As everyone within the crowded 11-person Republican field shifts for a stronger position with less than a week before the caucus here, Carson has become a political bridesmaid: well-liked by many, but nobody’s favorite. That wasn’t the case just a few short months ago, when the soft-spoken Christian bloomed into Iowa’s sweetheart, surging to a 9 percentage-point lead in October and becoming the first candidate since July with a polling advantage over the brash Donald Trump. But today, Trump is the front-runner who’s filling up arenas, while Carson — stuck firmly in fourth place — is at risk of becoming a one-hit wonder relegated to coffee shop status. Even Carson, as he recently told OZY, understands how precarious this race can be: “You can never divorce yourself from the good or the bad.” But can Carson make the ultimate comeback?

It’s sometimes said that belief is part faith and part reason. In Carson’s case, few question whether he’s got enough of the former, yet many wonder if he’s got enough of the latter, specifically when it comes to his knowledge of national security. “Nobody abandoned him because they no longer found his ‘faith story’ compelling,” says Arthur Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University. “But it’s not sufficient to get their vote.” Indeed, Carson started tumbling in the polls with the rise of ISIS; the Paris bombings made safety a top priority for voters. Things got worse, political experts say, after he struggled to pronounce the names of certain foreign groups (“hummus” for Hamas, for example) while showing a general incoherence on the topic.

You can never divorce yourself from the good or the bad.

-Ben Carson to OZY

It’s a problem his campaign seems acutely aware of, so much so that Carson has taken to trotting out his national security advisor and campaign chairman, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Dees, to play his opening act — and first defense. “There is this false narrative that’s been propagated about his knowledge of foreign affairs,” Dees tells the residents of Creston, before noting that there’s no candidate he’d trust more if he were back on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Jason Osborne, a spokesman for the campaign, tells OZY that Carson has correctly pronounced Hamas many times in the past and that “he is very comfortable with how to lead.”

If there’s any place for a Republican to stage a comeback, it’s Iowa. Remember, Rick Santorum went from third to first in the final week here in 2012, and Mike Huckabee had a similar rise in 2008. Carson wants to be next on that list — first by recapturing his evangelical base, then by tapping into the anti-establishment fervor that Trump has harnessed so well. He’s been more vocally critical of the GOP, even suggesting in December that he’d consider a third-party run (which he quickly walked away from after blowback). It’s a clever move for an electorate that distrusts both parties more than ever: In a recent Fox News poll, more than half of GOP primary voters said they felt their party had betrayed them, while 37 percent of Democrats felt similarly.

Here in Creston, as Carson regales his caffeine-fueled flock of fans with tales, he stakes out a pox on both parties’ path to victory. “We, the people, keep sending back to Washington people who don’t care about the future,” Carson says. “It’s not just a Democrat problem. It’s a Republican problem, too. They’ve all been doing this.” His sentiment rings true among some, including 69-year-old great-grandpa Charlie Westman: “What I like about Ben is he’s not a lifetime Republican or Democrat — he’s a real person.”

The only problem? This is also largely Ted Cruz’s appeal, Sanders says, and so far, the Texas senator has done a better job. Recently, Cruz accused mainstream Republicans of trying to shutter his candidacy by coalescing around Trump. Nobody — even Carson — does indignant rage better than Cruz, who often rails against the “Washington cartel” and has led most Iowa polls in recent weeks.

To be sure, Carson still has his own core strengths. He’s well liked, with some of the highest favorability ratings in the field. And after raising around $23 million in the last three months of 2015 alone, his campaign remains cash-flush heading into this whirlwind week. In rare candor, his spokesman Osborne adds that Carson feels like he’s now able to articulate what exactly he can do, “which he didn’t feel like he could do before.” So while, at this point, Carson seems to have faded to the back of the pack, that doesn’t mean, in the last few days before the caucus, “something can’t happen,” says Dennis Goldford, author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses.

But as Carson continues to push the rogue narrative — his campaign says that, having never been elected, he’s got a greater claim to outsider status — he’s writing another ending for himself: one where he’s becoming a true outsider. Establishment types can’t support him, and evangelicals have ditched him for Cruz or Trump. His race isn’t a refuge, either: From the neon-blue set of BET’s #AllVotesMatter Twitter Townhall at Drake University, Carson sat with New Orleans rapper Dee-1 and answered questions about color, submitted through tweets. Online, the only African-American candidate in this year’s presidential race got an overwhelmingly cold reception — even from Black pundits. “Dr. Carson isn’t trying to get the votes of pundits,” Osborne argues. “He’s trying to get the votes of people.”

Comment

OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.