Hassle today, gone tomorrow?

Photographer: Laura Segall/Getty Images

How Republicans Will Crush Ben Carson

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Did you see this one? Conservative outlet National Review today ran a story describing how notional presidential candidate Ben Carson has fronted for a medical supplement company with a dubious record, including accusations of false advertising.

Carson, of course, isn't going to be the Republican nominee in 2016. But he polls fairly well, and has inspired enthusiasm in his appearances -- more, several reporters have concluded, than most conventional candidates. You can imagine him having a good debate (as Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain did in the 2012 cycle) and spiking up to the lead in pre-Iowa polling. 

The National Review article isn't just evidence of how people who haven’t been in the business of running for office may have more skeletons than most ambitious politicians acquire. It’s also a good example of how party actors communicate, and how the consensus of those actors can filter out to ordinary voters.

That is: It's a lot harder to imagine a National Review hit piece on a Republican candidate whom Republican leaders -- including National Review editors -- want to win the nomination. There's nothing really damning in Jim Geraghty’s story -- nothing a friendly publication couldn’t ignore or, if the story was making the rounds, explain away.

So we can read this as, first, a communication among Republican Party actors (hey, we may want to be careful about building up this guy). And, second, we can view it as an illustration of how party actors educate the rank and file -- or, more plausibly, as a preview of how partisan media can help educate the rank and file once these voters start tuning in to the election next year.

Granted, it isn't possible to prove intent. Let’s just say that running this story now is consistent with the interests of a Republican Party that doesn’t want the hassle of a Carson surge later this year and would prefer he leave the presidential race.

I don’t mean to make this sound conspiratorial -- that an edict came from Establishment Central to take down Ben Carson. But National Review is far more likely to investigate and run a negative story about a Republican presidential contender if Republican party actors – including those who run and staff the magazine – don’t want that candidate to win. And this kind of communication will only increase as the nomination contest continues.

This is why we should pay more attention to what’s happening in the invisible primary -- the period before voters get involved in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states -- than we should to early opinion surveys, straw polls and reactions to appearances. Except to the extent that party actors care about those early, otherwise meaningless indications of popular support for the various candidates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net