Carson can bump Trump, if media help

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at a rally Aug. 27 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at a rally Aug. 27 in Little Rock, Arkansas. AP

Just as everyone decided Donald Trump would lead the Republican presidential polls for the next several months, Ben Carson tied him for the lead in an Iowa survey released Monday.

No, Carson probably isn’t actually leading in Iowa. A Bloomberg poll released over the weekend still has Trump with the edge. And the Huffpost Pollster estimate there has Trump at 24 percent and Carson at only 15 percent (although when the Pollster program is set to be more sensitive to recent polls, Carson is only half a percentage point behind).

This still tells us nothing about what’s going to happen in the Iowa caucuses, which don’t take place until February. Nor does the national polling – where Carson has also moved up into second place – give us any indication of who will win the Republican nomination.

But what today’s survey may forecast is that Carson will get some media attention. If he does, he'll also likely get a more pronounced polling surge, possibly into first place.

Remember, what’s keeping Trump on top now appears to be almost entirely the huge media attention, as John Sides said at the Monkey Cage on Friday. After all, most voters won’t make serious decisions about which candidate to support until after New Year’s Day in Iowa and New Hampshire, and later everywhere else. Yet plenty of people are willing to answer a pollster’s question even if they haven’t made a real choice.

One way Trump will lose altitude will be when other candidates are in the news. Enter Carson.

Granted, the retired neurosurgeon may be even less qualified to be president (and, one could argue, even more prone to irresponsible statements on some things) than Trump is. Carson is good, however, at speaking the resentment-filled language of conservative talk radio. And again: Polling surges months before anyone is casting a ballot aren’t about decisions to vote for a candidate; they’re about media attention, as long as the initial limited information doesn’t give voters a clear reason to dismiss the person they’re hearing about.

Whatever they wind up doing in 2016, Republican voters aren’t going to initially reject a candidate just because he isn't conventionally qualified for the job or says a lot of inflammatory things.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.