A lot can happen in a month. Media outlets from CNN to Politico to the Wall Street Journal cast doubt on key details of Carson’s life story in November, forcing the campaign on the defense. Then The New York Times published a story suggesting that Carson’s own advisors doubted his understanding of foreign policy after terrorism in Paris sparked heightened security concerns.
Carson and his campaign blamed media bias for unflattering coverage, and conservative commentators chimed in to agree. But the reports called Carson’s credibility as a national leader into question at a moment when foreign policy had suddenly stolen the spotlight. Evangelical voters ranked terrorism as their top concern in picking a Republican nominee in Wednesday’s poll results. (Concern over terrorism tied with the economy for first place after jumping 16 percentage points in a month.)
Competition for evangelical votes has been fierce in a crowded Republican field. Trump has trotted out religion on the campaign trail and bragged about his evangelical appeal. (“They do love me,” Trump has said). Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz jostled for the spotlight at a rally for Christian conservative hero Kim Davis. Still, Carson has so far proven a formidable challenger, opening up a lead over Trump among evangelical voters in September.
That lead has now vanished as the Carson campaign struggles to prove his credibility.
Evangelicals are as diverse as any other voting bloc, but on average, they do exhibit some distinctive traits. A report released in May by the Barna Group concluded that evangelical voters pay far more attention to character and religious devotion than to time spent in office or political positions when picking a candidate.
“Evangelicals are a narrative people,” Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, told the Washington Post in October. “They resonate with someone who went if not from being ‘lost’ to ‘found,’ then at least from poverty to success.”
Carson fits that description. The retired neurosurgeon is a self-styled outsider with a popular appeal built on his life story. Religion plays a prominent role in Carson’s personal narrative, as he stresses the redeeming power of the Christian faith.
“I can’t tell you how many activists have come up to me and said, ‘I read Dr. Carson’s book,’” former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn told the Associated Press. Strawn added that evangelical Christians especially felt that his story helped them “know who Ben Carson is as a man.”
Now, voters may be left wondering how much they really know.
Attacks on Carson’s credibility haven’t just come from the media. During a November campaign rally, Trump attacked the candidate’s story of divine intervention. “Give me a break, give me a break. It doesn’t happen that way,” Trump said. (Trump characterized Carson’s religious conversion as “he goes into the bathroom for a couple of hours and he comes out and now he’s religious.”)