In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Dr. Ben Carson surged to the lead of the national Republican presidential race, garnering 29 percent of the tally with the Iowa caucus less than 90 days away.
The stunning rise of the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon—blowing past Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner for months—now qualifies as the most remarkable story to date of the campaign season. And yet, across the board, political pundits and reporters remain flummoxed by the renowned doctor’s strong relationship with voters.
So, what explains Carson’s unexpected success? According to the half-dozen communication experts we talked to, the answer lies in his “vastly underestimated”—a near unanimous conclusion—verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
The political class, the Beltway establishment, party apparatchiks, talk show pundits, and campaign beat journalists, experts say, have been paying too much attention to what Carson says, instead of how he says it. While the exact percentage is impossible to pin down, let’s not forget that research shows that the overwhelming majority of communication effectiveness—up to 80 and 93 percent, according to studies—is determined by nonverbal cues.
Carson’s soft-spoken, “low-key” demeanor, derided by some, and regularly by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a conservative former GOP Florida congressman, and Trump, of course, is often mistaken for a lack of leadership ability, according to the University of Baltimore’s Steven D. Cohen.
“Carson says his soft-spokenness is a strength, not a weakness and that’s a quote I’ve clipped out and shared with my students,” Cohen says. “I was baffled for a while myself. I think the media is used to [covering] more intense leaders . . . But he’s always in control of himself and when Donald Trump or someone else makes a personal attack, he doesn’t respond. It rolls off his back.”
Cohen is quick to note that, when a politician goes negative, it tends to push up both candidates’ negative numbers. In the case of Trump vs. Carson, it’s instructive to see that the New York real estate mogul has been careful not to overplay his hand. Yet.
“Carson has the ability to remain calm and collected in the heat of moment, which communicates the kind of stability and composure we expect to see in surgeons,” as well as in leaders in other areas of our lives, Cohen says.
Towson University professor Richard Vatz, who teaches political rhetoric, is a conservative but by no means endorses Carson. Nonetheless, he compares the doctor’s demeanor to that of the president that all GOP hopefuls wish to emulate.
“I think Dr. Carson makes an apt comparison to Ronald Reagan, one of our great rhetorical stylists. You never saw anybody get under his skin,” Vatz says of Reagan. “There’s never any evident personal rancor with Dr. Carson, either. Never any anger. The one time you saw Reagan get angry, he was at a candidate forum in New Hampshire and a moderator attempted to cut off his microphone. He responded, ‘I am paying for this microphone,’ which was a memorable line.’”
However top political communications consultant Ruth Sherman believes that, while Carson’s debate performance improved at the third GOP debate, he has a long way to go in that format. As a media coach, she thinks Carson remains too soft spoken.
“He was significantly looser in his presentation [at the CNBC debate]. He was more prepared and his presentation was more engaging, though his physical and vocal affect are still too quiet,” she says. “His voice is especially monotonous, which causes a mismatch. He is unable to show excitement or display passion. His facial expression is flat, though he didn't close his eyes as much, which is a bad habit.”
Karen Bradley, the director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland and a movement analysis expert, says that one of Carson’s strengths is that he speaks in clear, short phrases and can be animated with his eyes—“they can twinkle”—and hands. Carson, however, she says doesn’t generally give the impression that he fully “stands behind” what he says with strong “core” positioning, in the manner other, more practiced candidates do.
In that way, Carson shares a certain characteristic with Trump that may be helping voters identify with each political newcomer. Notably, neither of the two GOP leaders comes across as overly rehearsed in their speech. “We call this ‘flow’ and it’s fun to watch,” Bradley says. “They say what they think and move from topic to topic.”
Essentially, in terms of communication, it is this lack of self-censoring that is appealing about outsider candidates. Of course, it’s the same quality that makes both Carson and Trump prone to controversial statements.
“Carson appeals to the nonpolitical type, he’s someone who is viewed an uncorrupted by the political system,” says Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Political Communication and Leadership. “He says: ‘I’m not a debater, I’m just a person trying to do the right thing’ and that is really appealing right now.’”
On the other side of the aisle, Martin O’Malley’s communication skills, which can vary widely and send mixed messages, can be harder to parse. “I’ve seen him as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ and ‘Mr. Nasty,’” Vatz said.
None of the experts we spoke with believe that the former Baltimore mayor and former two-term governor with a liberal record of accomplishment in Annapolis doesn’t mean what he says. He just doesn’t communicate “authenticity”—the signature quality primary campaigns are about when party activists are looking for candidates they can back with enthusiasm.
“He comes off as ‘too smooth,’” said Parry-Giles. “He wants to be the ‘cool guy,’ the Obama-figure—the young, energetic guy—but he hasn’t taken off and it’s too late now.”
O’Malley, in many ways, has been stuck in the outside lane, unable to get in-between Sanders, the self-declared socialist, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate.
It’s somewhat ironic, Parry-Giles said, that Bernie Sanders is one the seen as against the establishment. “He’s unkempt and unpolished, but he’s a lifelong politician, too.”
But while Sanders’ Brooklyn accent, at times, uncombed hair and emphatic gesturing communicate ‘genuineness,’ O’Malley often misses the authenticity target because his anger can feel rehearsed and his smiles ill-timed or forced.
“Psychoanalysts—and I’m not one—call this ‘misplaced affectation,’” Vatz said, referring to O’Malley’s occasional mismatched expression and context.
On the other hand, Bradley says, O'Malley on the stump or at the podium, speaks with a “tremendous” amount of core support, which communicates that’s he engaged and “stands behind” what he says. O’Malley is able to turn his body and look directly at other candidates on stage. He's also able to look into the camera and use his smile, effectively, at times. O’Malley’s main problem, as Bradley sees it, is that he speaks in very long phrases that may be hard for some people to follow.
“He’s not easy to understand in the way that Bill Clinton is,” she said.
Cohen agrees with Bradley and takes it a step further. He says not only does O’Malley—a well known policy wonk—speak in phrases that are too wordy; he also tries to squeeze in each of his talking points when he’s interviewed on television or standing on the stage. The combination inevitably makes his presentation more awkward and stiff than necessary.
“It always looks like he’s trying to get everything he’s written down on his ‘3 by 5’ cards into his allotted time,” Cohen says. “That’s why he struggles to communicate on a deeper level with voters.” In Maryland, the University of Baltimore political observer says, voters have had time to get to know O’Malley, but that’s not true outside the state.
In fact, in some ways, the challenge O’Malley faces is similar to one that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush face. All three have strengths based on governing experience and knowledge of policy, but they are not the most gifted nonverbal communicators.
All three want to make the case want that they are the “competent” choice for voters—and, to their credit, put forth their policy plans. Not exactly a recipe for excitement or how we tend market things in the U.S., however.
In the end, it will be interesting to see where Carson and O’Malley land even if neither wins their primary nominations. Some, cynically, already view Carson’s campaign as largely an effort to enhance his brand and book sales. Some also believe that O’Malley’s realistic aim in the short-term is not the Democratic presidential nomination—though he would certainly accept it—but the vice-president slot or a cabinet level position.
“He’s a really smart politician. I consider him one of the smartest politicians around,” Vatz said of O’Malley. “I don’t think he’ll be making unnecessary personal attacks at Sanders or Clinton and take the risk of offending the party.”
This Friday at 8 p.m., MSNBC host Rachel Maddow will moderate a Democratic forum from Winthrop University featuring O'Malley, Clinton, and Sanders.
The next Republican debate, the GOP's Fox Business Network debate from Milwaukee, WI, is scheduled for 9 p.m. Tuesday.