The Fix has said this before and will say it again. This time with emphasis.
The race for the White House is really a long, very expensive and highly consequential ad campaign. What else are candidates doing than trying to convince voters that they have the best ideas, the most ambitiously pragmatic solutions for the country's ills and, of course, the right combination of character, experience and other attributes to do the job well?
And when it comes to advertising, social programming (or, if you prefer, stereotypes) and the human id are major parts of what makes consumers believe firmly in what they are being told. Think about the sexy woman in the hamburger campaign ad, the man in the investment ad whose voice we hear but who remains unseen. The hamburger maker wants consumers to associate that food with other things people really, really want or want to be. Culturally, men's voices remain the sound of wisdom and authority.
With that in mind, there were some things that happened around Ben Carson's campaign last week that are worth noting. They speak volumes about some of the core aspects of his political appeal. They suggest why he has done well with white voters. And they virtually whisper a whole assortment of things about the ever-evolving but still-significant role of race in American politics.
Let us explore.
First, CNN published a story questioning the veracity of claims Carson has made about his life for decades. Carson has repeatedly described himself as a generally good but occasionally violently angry teen who came dangerously close to hurting people about whom he cared very much. What changed Carson? What made him the remarkably soft-spoken surgeon-turned-novice-politician — and, in some polls, the leading Republican contender for the White House — that we know today? To hear Carson tell it, it comes down to a few things:
- A long, solitary session in a bathroom where he really connected with Jesus.
- An early decision to dedicate no time to thinking about how the country has failed or mistreated black people for centuries.
- Very, very hard work.
CNN's story — one that started out with a fact-finding challenge because juvenile criminal records and certain student data, if they exist, are often shielded by law from public view — did not completely deliver. CNN turned to a number of people who said they knew Carson way back when and had no memory of such violent incidents. Carson's mother (who suffers from Alzheimer's disease) and his brother were unavailable for comment. So, the story concluded that Carson's tale of violence and deliverance cannot be confirmed.
But it was Carson himself who made the political importance of his once-angry-poor-and-violent-young-black-man story utterly clear. Late Thursday and early Friday, stories in which Carson clarified but stood by the claims started popping up. Carson told CNN that all this was part of a "smear campaign." By Friday, a Politico story raised questions about precisely what, if any, formal interest Carson had shown in West Point as a teen and the military academy in him. Carson seemed to concede that his descriptions have been imprecise, but he went no further.
So, on Friday, Carson denied any dishonesty about something lots of people lie about — college options — but insisted that things terrible and uncommon — an attempted stabbing and a thwarted bludgeoning/potential matricide — are utterly true. Why?
Carson and his team have to protect and vigorously defend the once-violent-and-poor, now-delivered-and-rich story — hard. They have to because the details and the transformation are a central part of what makes some people hold him in high esteem.
Consider this: During the 2012 campaign, reports emerged about the time a teenage Mitt Romney led a prep-school posse outraged by what it viewed as the flagrantly gay appearance of a fellow student student. The group pinned down the student. Romney forcibly cut the student's hair. Decades later, Romney told Fox News Radio that he didn't remember the incident but was sorry about pranks that might have gone too far. But that didn't put an end to the question of whether Romney was a nice enough person or too steeped in a rich, white-guy brand of cruelty to become president. As his campaign ran its course, the Romney hair-cutting bully story joined the already-big Romney the cruel dog owner narrative. Then, there was that "47 percent" video.
Some will unquestionably argue that the mean, cruel Romney narrative was a function of media bias. Maybe. But it's also possible that voter biases gave those stories political meaning. Rich, mean, privileged white men have been villains in literature, film and some people's actual lives for a long, long time. The possibility of a president being one did not appeal to at least some Americans. Other very important — hopefully, more important — stuff also happened. But, well, here we are.
Carson's up-from-nothing, saved-by-Jesus-and-personal-effort-only story works, primarily with white Republican voters. It works because for some it affirms the conscious or unconscious connections (stereotypes) they draw between blackness, poverty and violence. For others, it demonstrates that Jesus saves. And for others still, it is a narrative that says other, potentially costly social solutions to poverty and violence are not necessary. It says that small government can work.
Here is the data that hints that Carson's Horatio Alger-like story with a dash of violence appeals to white voters and why. The information below, some of which is admittedly a bit dated, comes from a CNN/ORC poll, the General Social Survey and Washington Post and Pew Research Center polls. Note the way distinct groups respond to the questions. (Click on charts to enlarge.)
Of course, there are also some non-white Americans for whom Carson's pitch works. But the Carson transformation story has certainly served him well in overwhelmingly white states with big evangelical populations, such as Iowa.
And there's little reason to believe that Carson has made any particularly unusual inroads with minority voters. In that same mid-October national CNN-ORC poll, Carson's white, non-white voter gap was 23 points. Donald Trump — whose comments about illegal immigrants have made him a reviled figure among Latinos — had only a slightly bigger gap, at 29 points.
Now, what about black voters? Well, that's where the radio ad that the Carson campaign rolled out Friday comes in. It is a rap. It's airing in Atlanta; Detroit; Houston; Miami; Birmingham, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock; and Memphis. And this is what Carson's team said about why.
“Reaching [black voters] on a level they appreciate and follow and see if we can attract their consciousness about the election,” Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts told ABC News. “They need to get involved and express their voice through their vote.”
The ad, titled "Freedom," features a rapper who uses the stage name Aspiring Mogul (real name Robert Donaldson). It consists of a rap about Carson with some samples from Carson's public comments. Donaldson told New York magazine that he's a Savannah-based, black, Republican Christian. He shares a lot of Carson's views. He has offered his talents to a campaign he supports. Nothing wrong with that.
But there is good reason to suspect that this ad might not provide the breakthrough with black voters the campaign wants.
First, there is the ad and its sound. There is much that has been said, implied and smirked about around this ad. So we will simply leave it to you to listen and/or read the following link.
Then, there is the content. It will not shatter the notion that Republicans don't respect or like black Americans or the idea that black Republicans dislike and disparage other blacks.
For the record, black voters have not, since at least the early 2000s, been the group most in need of anything imploring them to simply vote. "Freedom" says nothing at all about Carson's claims that Obamacare is among the worst things that have happened to this country, including slavery. Nor does it mention that Obamacare has reduced the share of black Americans who are uninsured. It does not make mention of Carson's call for a tithing-inspired flat tax system. (Most economists agree that a flat tax would more detrimentally affect the finances of the poor and the middle class than the wealthy unless very carefully structured.) And the Carson samples implying personal responsibility is a cure-all for complex social ills — well, that might also raise some eyebrows.
Politicians have long used heavy-on-emotions and shared-values claims to appeal to all kinds of voters. But those directed at voters of color are often particularly light on policy. And this, too, is no coincidence. This is about winning votes without changing the candidate's positions.
In 2012, Marisa Abrajano, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, told me that while researching her book, "Campaigning to the New American Electorate," that she watched and collected data on thousands of political ads aired in Spanish and English between 2000 and 2008.
She found that politicians who run relatively detailed policy ads or just old-fashioned attack ads on English-language stations almost never do so on Spanish–language TV. Instead, they pay for gossamer and values-centered advertising. The pattern is overwhelming, Abrejano told me. It's particularly true among Republicans trying to secure minority votes.
Leaving aside the arguable condescension involved in the "we don't agree on policy, but we do agree on values" pitch, this much we all know or should.
Candidates and their campaigns compete — with emotional, policy appeals as well as trackable promises — for the support of voters they want and respect. They often blame voters and the media when what they are doing does not work. But the advertising — er, campaigning — will go on.