FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA – For many black Americans, there are two Ben Carsons. One is a genius doctor and inspirational speaker and writer who talks of limitless horizons; the other is a Republican presidential candidate who pushes conservative politics and wishes to “de-emphasize race.”
How they reconcile the two may help determine whether Republicans can dent the solid support Democrats have enjoyed in the black community for decades.
Carson, the only black in the 2016 presidential race, was a celebrated figure before he entered politics because of his work as a neurosurgeon. He led a team that successfully separated conjoined twins, which led to movie appearances, best-selling books, a television biography and a motivational speaking career that crossed racial lines.
Now he has emerged as a major contender for the Republican nomination, tapping into the same anti-establishment sentiment that has also lifted real estate mogul Donald Trump to the top of opinion polls. With just over two months to go before the first primary contest, the Republican race remains crowded and unsettled, in contrast to the Democratic field, where Hillary Rodham Clinton is the clear favorite.
President Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. Carson wasn’t immune to the excitement of seeing the U.S. elect its first black president.
“I don’t think there were any black people in the country that weren’t thrilled that that happened — including me,” Carson said in a recent interview when asked about Obama’s first victory. “Everyone had hope this would be something different. It was nice having that hope for a little while.”
Carson has since become an aggressive critic of Obama. Carson rose to prominence in the conservative tea party movement after repudiating the president’s health care law in front of Obama during the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Today, Carson charges that Obama’s performance has actually set black candidates back.
“I don’t think he’s made my path any easier,” he said. “So many people said there’d never be another black president for 100 years after this.”
Carson has not gone out of his way to court black voters this year. He insists he won’t change his message to attract specific audiences, although his campaign tried a rap-filled ad this month.
He has one convert in Ayauna King-Baker, a Florida Democrat who loved Carson’s “Gifted Hands” memoir so much that she made her daughter Shaliya read it. When Carson showed up in Fort Lauderdale to sign copies of his new book, King-Baker dragged the giggly 13-year-old along to the bookstore so they could both meet him.
To King-Baker, Carson’s “up-by-your bootstraps” life story makes him a genuine celebrity worth emulating in the black community. Now she says she plans to change her registration to vote for him in the Florida primary. “He has the momentum, he has the conversation, he’s very serious, he’s speaking to the people, and I just think he would be a very good president,” she said.
None of this will matter unless Carson survives the primaries, where he has been leading in early preference polls.
Black votes aren’t a major factor in Republican primaries. Only about 16 percent of black voters were affiliated with the Republican Party in 2012. But they will be a factor in the November general election.
Black voters are one of the few growing segments of the voting public. The percentage of black voters eclipsed the percentage of whites for the first time in 2012, when 66 percent of blacks voted, compared with 64 percent of non-Hispanic whites and about 48 percent of Hispanics and Asians.
Carole Bell, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, estimates that Carson could attract as much as 25 percent of the black vote if he is the Republican candidate. “That would be a tremendous accomplishment for the GOP at this stage,” she said.
Carson is better known by black voters than were other black Republicans who ran for president, such as businessman Herman Cain, who achieved passing prominence in the 2012 race, and former ambassador Alan Keyes before him.
“Black people were proud that Carson had become a famous surgeon and had accomplished what no one else ever had in separating the twins,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
That is part of his appeal, said Rebecca Britt, 43, a registered Democrat who also came to see Carson in Fort Lauderdale and buy his most recent book. “He’s one of the heroes in our community, with what he’s been able to accomplish in the medical field,” she said.
But can that translate into many black votes?
Carson has said he would not support a Muslim for president, a position his campaign says helped him raise money and attract conservative support. He has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drew its name from protests that followed the death of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown.
The retired neurosurgeon said in an interview that Americans should take the focus off race during a recent trip to Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri.
Carson may draw support from conservative blacks and those already in the Republican Party, but it is unlikely that he would make major inroads in the Democratic Party’s dominance among blacks in a general election, said D’Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Given the Republican Party’s fraught history with blacks, it could be “nearly impossible for blacks to support a Republican who espouses what they deem to be racially conservative rhetoric,” Orey said. “Put short, it’s an uphill battle for any Republican who seeks out the black vote.”