Though President Barack Obama won 93 percent of the black vote in 2012, Carson is betting he can lead a significant portion of that demographic back to the party of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, his team has set ambitious target of winning 13 percent of the African-American vote in order to defeat the current Democratic front-runner in the general election.
“If we can capture that much of the African-American vote, it is mathematically impossible for her to win,” said Armstrong Williams, a longtime Carson adviser, referring to Clinton.
That figure, however, is more than double the percentage of African-Americans who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. At least one Democratic pollster calls the goal “realistic,” despite the fact that African-American Republicans remain something of a rarity. Of the 535 voting members of Congress, just three are black Republicans, and that constitutes the high-water mark since Reconstruction. And while pursuing the black vote makes sense in the general election, it comes at a time when Carson's status as a front-runner suddenly feels precarious. After a string of foreign policy miscues this month, Carson's standing in the polls has dipped, while Donald Trump's numbers have either held steady or continued to rise.
After months of campaigning without many direct appeals to black voters, Carson was the only Republican presidential candidate to show up last weekend at a Black Entertainment Television forum at Allen University in South Carolina, a state where more than a quarter of the population is African-American. Carson directly addressed the issue of race in his campaign, arguing that his party presents black voters with an alternative that respects their personal dignity.
“A lot of people say to me, 'You grew up poor. You must have enjoyed some government support. Now you want to take that away from everybody else,'” Carson told the mostly African-American crowd of about 300 at the historically black university.
“I have no intention of withdrawing safety nets from people, but people say stuff like that to demonize you,” he continued. “It threatens the narrative that they have. The narrative of dependency—that you actually need them for something, that if they disappear, all of your fortunes are going to go down the tubes. That's a bunch of crap, quite frankly, and it's been going on for way too long.”
Carson believes he can help his party cut into what has traditionally been a core Democratic constituency—only about 2 percent of registered Republicans are black, according to a Gallup poll—by appealing to socially conservative African-Americans who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.
Vanderbilt University associate professor Efrén Pérez, an expert on political psychology, said Carson or any other Republican presidential candidate might be able to get more than 10 percent of the black vote this cycle by appealing to religiously conservative voters. “Anything beyond that is an uphill battle,” Pérez said. “And I don't think the reserve of religiously conservative African-Americans runs deep enough to call it a swath of Republican support.”
Pérez said that GOP efforts to elect a more diverse field often “make white members more comfortable about their own party, but it has does very little for the recruitment effort of minority members into the fold.”
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Obama, said Carson's goal is “realistic,” but does not represent a long-term solution for the Republican Party. “The overall problem for Republicans is still the same: they're preaching to a shrinking choir,” Belcher said.
A retired neurosurgeon whose headline-making surgeries made him an African-American icon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Carson's personal biography remains his primary asset in the campaign. Many in the black community have praised his rise from poverty to become an Ivy League-educated doctor. At a Carson book-signing in Florida last month, Donnie Flowers, an African-American surgical technician, arrived in surgical gear after completing his shift at a nearby Tampa hospital to see the pediatric surgeon he had always held up as a role model. Wearing scrubs decorated with Cat in the Hat characters because “today we did a lot of toddler operations and I wanted to make them smile,” Flowers seemed noncommittal about Carson's new career.
“One hundred years from now, they'll talk about Ben Carson as a great surgeon—regardless of what happens with his political ambitions,” he said.
Belcher praised Carson's story as “the quintessential American dream.”
“But all of that was pre-politics. And he's now attacking one of the most beloved figures in the African-American community: Barack Obama,” Belcher added. “Of course that's going to influence people's opinions.”
In a 2013 address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Carson gained national attention when he delivered a blistering critique of Obama's policies before an audience that included the president. Since then, Carson has taken some positions likely to be controversial with the black voters he's trying to court. At a time when some black leaders have aggressively criticized the police force following race riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, Carson has taken an opposite tack. He visited Ferguson in September and defended police officers, while calling on the Black Lives Matter movement to include discussions on ending abortion and lowering the rate of black homicide. He also has acknowledged bias but insists African-Americans can work their ways around it.
“I'm not saying that it's not difficult. I'm not saying that you may not have a higher hurdle to jump,” he said in South Carolina over the weekend. “But we need to start working on jumping over it—that's what I'm saying.”
On the campaign trail, Carson casts himself as a president who would heal racial tensions and argues that the media and the Obama administration have fueled division.
“All of those people who are trying to divide us? They are becoming very good at it,” Carson told supporters in Mobile, Alabama, last week. “Where did that come from? I can tell you where it did not come from. It did not come from our Judeo-Christian values.”
At a forum for social conservatives in Des Moines on Friday, Carson acknowledged that he has been a victim of racial prejudice but won warm laughter and applause by recalling advice his mother gave him as a child. “My mother said, 'Benjamin, you walk into an auditorium full of racist, bigoted people? You don't have a problem. They have a problem,'” Carson said. The bigots, Carson said his mother told him, would be fretting about whether he'd sit next to them while “you can sit anywhere you want.”
On policy, Carson argues his economic plan would significantly help urban communities to lower the 9.2 black unemployment rate (the overall rate stands at 5 percent nationally). He wants to significantly lower tax rates in urban areas to encourage business investment, a plan first championed by Jack Kemp, who served as a housing secretary in the George H. W. Bush administration.
“You look at the economic conditions in the black community—why is it moving in the wrong direction?” Carson told reporters in Columbia. “I want to establish a dialogue with them so we can start talking about how we do we actually create those ladders of opportunity that bring people out of the state of dependency.“
Carson can deliver a message to black voters that most Republican candidates can't, Williams argues. “He relates to that community more than any other candidate in the field. His story is their story,” Williams said. “Most African-Americans look at the Republican brand of politics right now and feel it's not for them.”
In order to win 13 percent of the black vote, Carson will have to win over voters like Tim Green, a 31-year-old African-American who attended a Carson rally last week in Mobile. Green said he voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but now is undecided. He said he grew up learning about Carson's success as a doctor and was curious to see him in person.
“After Obama got elected, there's not a lot of buzz or energy to elect another black president so I'm not sure how much he can tap into that energy,” said Green, an employee at the University of South Alabama. “But I'm really interested to see what Dr. Carson has to say on the economy. The economy really hasn't recovered all that much, especially for young people.”