Is Ben Carson Really a Viable Presidential Candidate?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 11, 2015 · 10:11 AM EST

Just because something has not happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future.

Barack Obama and Barry Goldwater proved that point, and Hillary Rodham Clinton could soon be added to the list. Could Ben Carson, as well?

There has been plenty of chatter about Carson and his potential presidential run, from sympathetic pieces on the right to apoplectic pieces on the left. Handicappers have weighed in as well, generally dismissing his prospects. I did much the same thing in last week’s column.

But should we be taking Carson more seriously as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination? Has the party changed so much over the past few decades — and is Carson uniquely qualified — that he should be treated as a plausible contender?

A graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School, Carson’s personal story is compelling. Though he was born into poverty, he became a highly regarded surgeon who directed pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

Carson, 63, retired as a surgeon in early 2013 and has been increasingly outspoken on political issues. He gives every indication of running for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

As someone who has never held, or even sought, elective office, Carson easily fills the profile of a true outsider. Many Republican hopefuls will run against Washington, D.C., and politics-as-usual, but they will be sitting or former officeholders who sound and act like politicians.

The former surgeon sounds more authentic than your average politician, and his willingness to identify himself as “not politically correct” is both a credential that separates him from other candidates and an appealing message that resonates with conservative Republicans.

Carson’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013 showed him to be a gifted and compelling speaker who understands the use of humor and storytelling in getting and keeping an audience’s attention. Many of his TV interviews (including recent ones about the importance of vaccinations for children) show him to be serious and intense, yet invariably low-key.

Carson’s race makes him unique in the GOP field, and increases his appeal to conservatives who want to prove to liberals they are not racially bigoted.

Moreover, the former neurosurgeon is well-liked by conservative media hosts, who have become a significant force within the Republican Party.

Talk show host Mark Levin has said Carson “would be a superb president,” and asserted, “He’s a hundred times more qualified than Barack Obama ever was.” Rush Limbaugh has defended Carson repeatedly from criticism, and Sean Hannity has given Carson plenty of attention on his Fox show.

Not surprisingly given the attention he has received from the conservative media, Carson has shown well in early tests of potential presidential hopefuls. Last summer, he “won” the Western Conservative Summit straw poll in Denver and the GOP’s Polk County (Iowa) straw poll. He finished second to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2014 Value Voters straw poll in September and the Republican Leadership Conference presidential straw poll in May.

But all of those accomplishments and assets don’t make Carson a plausible nominee for the Republican Party, at least not yet.

Carson has never run even a single political race, raising huge questions about what kind of a candidate he will be and what kind of political team he will put together. The early indications are not good.

He and his conservative admirers dismiss his lack of campaign experience, as well as the fact that he has never held either high elective or appointive office. To them, his values and views strongly outweigh any lack of electoral experience or government service.

But most voters consider experience an asset, not a liability, and candidate skills go well beyond being interviewed by a friendly voice from Fox News or conservative talk radio.

Even veteran candidates who have spent years in the political spotlight make mistakes during campaigns, and the chances a first-time candidate will make serious stumbles are enormous. Indeed, Carson has already left a trail of comments, both written and spoken, that have raised eyebrows, ranging from his comments pitching a controversial firm’s nutritional supplement to his comments about evolution.

How important is electoral experience? Going back to the beginning of the last century, only four men who had never held elective office were nominated for president by a major party: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Wendell Willkie in 1940, Herbert Hoover in 1928 and William Howard Taft in 1908.

Eisenhower, of course, was a well-known general, while Hoover and Taft had been appointed to high-profile government positions — Hoover as secretary of Commerce and Taft as solicitor general and eventually secretary of War.

One other presidential nominee during the period, Democrat Alton Parker in 1904, was elected only to the New York State Supreme Court and the New York State Court of Appeals.

All other nominees for president had been elected to Congress or as governor.

None of this is an accident. Voters value experience, insight into a candidate’s temperament and evidence of leadership when they evaluate presidential hopefuls.

So, have I been underestimating Carson’s potential in the race for the GOP nomination? I don’t think so. He still needs to prove he is a plausible contender.