Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson attends an antiabortion rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood on July 28, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

The surge of support for Ben Carson is making some people curious. Howard Kurtz suggests Carson’s surge is “under the media radar.”

That’s exactly backwards. Carson’s surge is arguably because he got back on the media’s radar. Even though Carson is not receiving a lot of news coverage, the trends in Carson’s polling numbers are easily understood as responses to trends in how much he’s covered in news — much as is true of Donald Trump.

[Why is Trump surging? Blame the media.]

Here is a graph showing the percentage of news stories that mention Carson and his national polling numbers. As in my previous posts, I draw on social analytic tools provided by Crimson Hexagon. These tools are devised to gather and reveal the volume and tone of media coverage on major news sites. UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck and I are analyzing the news coverage of presidential candidates as part of our joint work on the 2016 election.


Carson declared his candidacy on May 3. Our data starts on May 16, at which point we are still picking up the bump Carson received from his announcement. In addition, Carson got spikes of attention for speeches at Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” event in Iowa and the Freedom and Faith Coalition Conference.

His coverage then began to wane, as did his poll numbers. The spike in his poll numbers came only after he began to get more attention around the Aug. 6 debate and thereafter.

[Why does Trump remain atop the polls? You can still blame the media.]

To see this more clearly, let’s take an average of Carson’s poll numbers and graph that against his news coverage.


This graph puts news coverage on the left-hand axis and the poll average on the right-hand axis. It shows the correlation more clearly. (And despite all the bumps and wiggles in news coverage, there is a statistically significant correlation here.)

An underappreciated fact is that Carson was also polling reasonably well in May and June — when he was getting, on average, some degree of news coverage after announcing his candidacy and giving these speeches.

Then, after the Faith and Freedom speech, he got much less attention. His poll average followed suit.

Finally, after he began to get more attention at the beginning of August, his poll average increased.

Again, it is possible that news coverage responds to poll numbers. Increasing polling numbers always make for horse-race coverage.

But, as I’ve argued in the past, we should expect the news coverage to come first. People’s views about a candidate are likely to change only when the information they’re getting about that candidate changes. News coverage isn’t the sole source of information, but it’s an important one.

Certainly being on the media’s radar has been crucial for Carson.