Ben Carson hasn't had a very good couple of weeks. He first exposed his ignorance on what is happening in Syria during a debate, claiming (falsely, he later sheepishly admitted) to have solid proof that China was in the midst of the conflict. This was just before the Paris attacks, so it might have been prominently in voters' minds during the aftermath. Then some of his advisors went public in the New York Times claiming Carson desperately needed to study up on the rest of the world because he knew so little about such things as the Middle East, while the candidate himself was making news by claiming the pyramids were nothing more than grain silos. After the Paris attacks happened, Carson wrote an editorial on what to do about the Islamic State for the Washington Post which was borderline incoherent (read it in full if you think this is an exaggeration). And now it looks like this floundering on foreign policy is beginning to hurt his standing in the polls. Could this be the start of Carson fading into irrelevance in the Republican presidential nomination race?
Perhaps, but then perhaps not -- a few polls may not really qualify as a trend. Even so, polls taken after the debate show a distinct downward heading for Carson. Before the debate, Carson had impressively scored in the most recent four polls: 29 percent, 23 percent, 24 percent, and 23 percent. This gave him an average (on the Real Clear Politics tracking page) of 24.8 percent of the Republican vote. Carson was even -- briefly -- in first place, as Donald Trump at this point was in a slump (for him) and only polling at 24.6 percent.
Since then, four more polls have been released. Carson's scores are not nearly as impressive in these (conducted from November 15th through the 19th). He only managed, in this round of polling: 20 percent, 19 percent, 22 percent, and 18 percent. His average has slipped five whole points, down to 19.8 percent. That's a lot of damage in a very short period of time. During this period, Donald Trump rose to 27.5 percent, gaining almost three points. Carson bled support to Trump and also (in a lesser way) to both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The rest of the GOP field has been stable (at six percent or lower).
Again, it is much more accurate to call this: "the possible beginning of a very bad trend for Carson" rather than something like: "Carson's numbers tanking fast," or even: "Carson's toast." He's still pulling in one of every five Republican voters, after all -- something only surpassed by Trump. He's still solidly in second place, with his closest competitors being Marco Rubio (at only 12.5 percent support) and Ted Cruz (11.3 percent). Carson's got a lot further to fall before he can safely be written off as a contender, in other words.
Still, the news isn't exactly good for Carson. He's trying to get back on board by echoing Trump, but out-Trumping Trump is always hard to do. Carson is painfully weak on foreign policy, and I even heard it hinted over the weekend that he's contemplating a trip overseas to bolster his foreign policy experience somehow. This might be an interesting idea (other presidential candidates have done so to great effect), except that one of three places mentioned as possible destinations was "Australia." Um, because it's so critical to the fight against the Islamic State? No disrespect to the land down under, but seeing some kangaroos isn't really going to qualify as germane experience to the foreign policy issues under close scrutiny right now.
Of course, all this foreign policy attention might fade. The American public isn't exactly known for their long memories, and we're still months away from anyone actually voting. However, the next few weeks might be critical for Carson, because even issues that fade from the public eye usually take a few weeks to do so. Republicans, sensing an edge over Democrats, are going to be beating the foreign policy drums for at least the next couple of weeks -- and they might just force some sort of showdown with President Obama in early December, in the next budget battle.
Ben Carson's weakness on foreign policy is now on display for everyone to see. Foreign policy is likely to be the focus of much of the Republican nomination race for at least the next few weeks. This leaves a minefield for Carson to traverse. Right when he's already heading downwards in the polls.
Carson, though, has a Plan B -- he's had it all along, in plain sight. He is following in the footsteps of Newt Gingrich, who never really expected to become the Republican nominee, but thought running for president would be a dandy addition to his book tour. Which, as it turned out, was entirely correct. Gingrich led in the polls briefly, and he sold a lot of books. Carson could be contemplating a trip to Australia for a very similar reason.
Ben Carson, at this point, will last until the Iowa primary. That's almost assured. Iowa is seen as Carson's best chance for a win, as the evangelical Republican voters there love him. If he holds on to this support until the Iowa caucuses, he's still a viable candidate nationally no matter what his national polling looks like. Well, almost. If he sinks to the low single digits he might be done even with a strong Iowa finish.
But this is all speculation, at this point. Carson has lost one-fifth of his support in the past few weeks, but the four-fifths that (so far) remain are still a whole lot better than everyone else in the race but Trump. So it's too early to definitively say Carson will fade entirely from the scene. Or even to predict his polling will soon fall down to the low single digits, for that matter. Carson is the only other person to top 20 percent in the polling so far, and his other campaign trail gaffes haven't hurt him all that much. Still, with all the continuing focus within the Republican ranks on the foreign policy front, Ben Carson's poll numbers will bear watching over the next two or three weeks. He could indeed recover, he could perhaps visit someplace like Israel, and he could get more coherent about his plans for battling the Islamic State. But if he doesn't manage to accomplish any of that, it could be the beginning of the end for Ben Carson's quixotic candidacy.
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