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The Ben Carson Paradox

The same qualities that attract voters to Ben Carson make him a terrible debater

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Earlier this week The New York Times attributed Ben Carson’s rising poll numbers—especially, to Donald Trump’s growing frustration, in Iowa—to his calm, seemingly unflappable demeanor. “His supporters cite Mr. Carson’s character, not his positions, as the main reason they back him,” wrote Trip Gabriel. “And they say his low-key approach is precisely what would tame Washington’s bitter partisanship, rather than Mr. Trump’s swagger.” Here are a few of the things Iowa voters told the Times about Carson:

  • “That smile and his soft voice makes people very comforted,” said Miriam Greenfield, a farmer in Jewell, Iowa.
  • “He is kind when he speaks, and he doesn’t have an agenda to set himself up as wonderful,” said Donna Christiansen, a retiree in Ames.
  • “I believe someone as mild-mannered and gentlemanly as Ben Carson is just about the only kind of person that could [change things in Washington],” said Jason Wolke, a trial lawyer in Des Moines.
  • “People are very attracted to Ben Carson’s bedside demeanor,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a leader of the Christian right in Iowa.

In debates, however, Carson’s greatest strength—his calm, seemingly unflappable demeanor—is a liability. Tonight is no different. Carson is speaking softly and slowly; he seems sleepy. At best, he seems, well, not quite present. He’s boring, what Donald Trump would call  “very low energy.” None of the characteristics that draw voters to Carson translate on the debate stage, which may doom the former surgeon’s candidacy.

This is not a new phenomenon. During the last Republican debate, the New Republic's Suzy Khimm watched with Carson supporters and observed that,

Paradoxically, the very things that drew these folks to Carson also made him less prominent on the debate stage—and, some feared, could limit his potential for continuing his rise in the polls. While Carson has benefitted from voters tired of Trump’s bluster—with his support rising especially from white evangelicals after a similarly low-key, almost sleepy performance in the first debate—it’s unclear whether Carson will simply be a rest stop on the way to a feistier candidate.

Call it the Carson paradox: he can build support outside of the debates, but struggles to stand out on the biggest stage of the campaign. So far, it seems that Carson is unable to show any excitement or to energize voters who aren’t instinctively drawn to a soft-spoken, paternalistic figure. Today, the crowd is behind Carson—they loudly applauded when he hit back at questions about his homophobia and relationship with the nutritional supplement company Mannatech—but Carson's weak perforamnces may ultimately sink his campaign. But who knows? Even Ned Flanders, whose temperament resembles Carson’s in many ways, blows up occasionally. Maybe, one of these days, we’ll see Hurricane Carson.