Taking Ben Carson Seriously
As Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and untold others ramp up their campaigns for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, they’re going to be in for a surprise. A candidate neither they nor the political class regard as a serious contender is ahead of them in organizing a well-financed and unique campaign operation. It includes a “director of campaign culture” to motivate the staff and make sure the campaign reflects the vision and character of the candidate.
That candidate is Ben Carson, the African-American conservative and retired brain surgeon. His White House bid is not a lark. It only seems that way. Carson was more active in 2014 than any other potential Republican candidate. Now he is set to create a presidential exploratory committee and announce his candidacy sometime before May 1.
Candidates like Carson from the outskirts of electoral politics, who’ve never before run for office, are routinely dismissed as dreamers. They’re bucking history. They’re bound to wash out after the first caucus and primary, if not earlier. And in choosing Terry Giles, a Houston businessman with no political experience, as his campaign chairman, Carson only added to skepticism about his candidacy.
But Carson, 63, is no Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman who ran for the GOP nomination in 2012. Cain flew solo, without a campaign organization. His candidacy went nowhere. Carson is different. He has substantial name identification. He can raise money. His poverty-to-prominence story is compelling. He has a grassroots following. He is fluent on national issues.
Besides bringing in Giles, whom he met in 1994 when they were recipients of the Horatio Alger Award for overcoming “significant personal challenges to achieve success,” here’s what Carson did last year to advance his candidacy:
He delivered four or five speeches a week, some paid, some political, some to aid Republican congressional candidates, some to promote causes he favors, some to tout his book One Nation. He was a “contributor” on Fox News for most of the year, then a frequent guest. “He’s already won the Fox primary,” says Scott Reed, who was Bob Dole’s campaign manager in the 1996 presidential race. “He doesn’t have to go to Des Moines every week.” The Iowa presidential caucuses are currently scheduled for January 18, 2016.
He wrote two books, One Nation and an ebook titled One Vote. One Nation, published by Sentinel, spent 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 5 weeks as number one. It has outsold Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices 343,743 copies to 260,814, according to Bookscan. The ebook sold 35,000 copies and later another 85,000 as a paperback. Still another Carson book (coauthored with his wife Candy) on the Constitution is scheduled for publication later this year.
He collected as many as 750,000 names, roughly 600,000 gathered through the “Save Our Healthcare” project of American Legacy PAC. The Carson campaign intends to rent more than 530,000 names from the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, better known by its slogan “Run Ben Run.” That adds up to more than 1.2 million names, many with email addresses attached, linked to Carson. This is Carson’s base.
A 42-minute “documentary” on Carson ran in 37 local TV markets in November and on Newsmax and DirecTV from December 7 to 15. “You ask him a question and he knows how to answer,” country musician Ricky Skaggs says on the show. “From all indications,” the narrator says, “the sky’s the limit for Dr. Carson.”
Thousands listened to Carson on hourlong “tele-forums,” in which he was asked questions by callers. They tuned in after being notified of the opportunity to question Carson live. According to Broadnet, which operates the forums, Carson’s listeners stayed on the phone line a record amount of time.
The Carson campaign didn’t simply begin. It erupted with his 27-minute speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February 2013. President Obama was sitting a few feet away at the head table. “I have discovered in recent years,” Carson began, “that it’s very difficult to speak to a large group of people these days and not offend someone.” He criticized the tax system, excessive government spending, called the national debt a “big problem,” and offered a health care plan in sharp contrast to Obamacare. Obama was offended. The White House asked for an apology, but Carson refused.
The speech got enormous media coverage. It went viral. Carson was already well-known for his extraordinary surgery that separated German twins joined at their heads. But he wasn’t a household name. “All that changed after the prayer breakfast,” Carson told me. A Carson-for-president drumbeat began outside Washington and away from elite Republican circles.
In August 2013, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee was founded by John Philip Sousa IV, the great-grandson of the composer and conductor. “We only have one objective here—to get him to the White House in January 2017,” Sousa says. The group, which had raised $13 million by the end of 2014, asks voters to sign a petition imploring Carson to run. The group sends between 3,000 and 6,000 signed petitions every week directly to Carson’s home in West Palm Beach, Florida, along with books Sousa believes Carson “ought to read.”
Carson and the committee are barred by campaign law from collaborating. Still, Carson could have stifled Sousa by publicly insisting he cease and desist. That never happened. Carson was asked about the draft outfit on Fox News last year. “We all took a deep breath,” said Vernon Robinson, cofounder of the committee. When Carson said he wouldn’t discourage the effort, “we thought that was a political wink.” Indeed, it was.
The pro-Carson drive has emerged as a fact of life for Republicans in Iowa. It has a full-time staffer—political veteran Tina Goff—and claims to have Carson chairmen in all 99 Iowa counties. Once Carson announces, he should inherit this critical campaign infrastructure. Sousa and Robinson bought a list of past Republican caucusgoers and sent them four mailers. They also got 4,000 of them to declare their favorite in 2016. Undecided came in first (22 percent), followed by Senator Ted Cruz (17 percent) and Carson (14 percent).
Presidential polls so far before the election year are notoriously unreliable. Yet they can legitimize a seemingly fringe candidate. This appears to have happened in Carson’s case, at least in Iowa. In the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll in October of likely GOP caucus participants, Carson finished second with 11 percent to Mitt Romney’s 17 percent. And in the national CNN/ORC poll in December, Carson got 10 percent, second only to Romney’s 20 percent. He was ahead of Jeb Bush (9 percent), Chris Christie (8 percent), and Mike Huckabee (7 percent).
Does all this mean Carson is a serious rival to the bigger Republican names with long résumés and well-developed political skills? Possibly. At least he’s a long shot. Carson falls into that category of people who, having been successful in one high-powered field, assume they can succeed in another. Some are delusional. Others are more grounded, Ronald Reagan being the best example. In his stump speech, Carson says listening to Reagan drew him away from his liberal views and led him to conservatism. Carson appears to be grounded.
He faces four critical tests of his presidential ambitions. And to win the GOP nomination, he’ll have to pass all four. I think he’s already passed the first: He’s an appealing candidate. He’s likable. He speaks without notes. He has a sense of humor. His favorite story is about the man who gives two expensive birds that sing, dance, and speak to his mother. Later, he asks what she thought of his gift. They were good, she says. You didn’t eat them, did you? They could sing, dance, and speak! Well, she says, they should have said something. He told this story in his prayer breakfast speech. Now it’s part of his stump speech.
But Carson’s most striking feature is his calmness. I’ve interviewed him three times and he never raised his voice, even slightly. He’s pretty much the same in public appearances. Being calm—always—is a necessary trait in a brain surgeon, but unusual in a candidate. Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager and friend for more than two decades, says he’s never seen Carson get angry. Mike Murray, who created the “Save Our Healthcare” project, says Carson “has a great way of getting his point across without yelling or screaming.”
One thing not in doubt is Carson’s conservatism. He’s the real deal, an economic, social, and foreign policy conservative. He’s pro-life, opposed to gay marriage, eager to reduce welfare dependency and reform the tax code. “We need to recognize that there is a responsibility that goes with strength and that goes with position and leadership,” he told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in September. “And if we don’t exercise it, someone else will. And we don’t really want another nation at the pinnacle of the world that is not as benign as we are.”
In November, Carson changed his party affiliation to Republican from independent. “It’s a truly pragmatic move because I have to run in one party or another,” he told the Washington Times. “If you run as an independent, you only risk splitting the electorate.” He’s hardly a conventional Republican. He faults them for contributing to the nation’s political discord. “Washington, D.C., is dysfunctional today because the primary two political parties have become opponents instead of teammates with different approaches to the same goal,” he wrote in One Nation.
The second test for Carson is overcoming the implausibility of a brain surgeon’s becoming president. This won’t be easy. It may even be impossible. But it’s an obsession with Carson. He’s been insisting for years that nonpoliticians shouldn’t be ruled out for high office. “We need doctors, we need scientists, engineers,” he told the prayer breakfast. “We need all those people involved in government, not just lawyers.” In his book America the Beautiful, published in 2012, he said critics would discredit him by saying: “He is a brilliant surgeon, but he knows nothing about politics, law, and economics, and should confine his opinions to medicine.”
Carson stoutly defends a role for doctors in politics. Five signed the Declaration of Independence, he reminds audiences. Doctors are the “most highly educated group in the nation, trained to make decisions based on facts rather than emotion,” he wrote. “They tend to be excellent with numbers, very concerned about the welfare of others, and accustomed to hard work.” In the TV documentary, he carries the argument further. “One’s profession doesn’t dictate what one knows,” Carson said. “It dictates what one has to know to perform the duties of their profession. You don’t have to restrict yourself.” Also, “you have some people who are trained to be rational, and that helps when you throw them into the mix.”
For Carson, the campaign is the mix. The televised campaign debates with Republican candidates will be crucial. If he’s as credible and persuasive as Republican heavyweights like Bush and Romney, Carson’s reputation will soar. If he’s not, his campaign will be over. Campaign chief Terry Giles says the Carson operation will produce a series of policy papers. “He is looking to change the country. .??.??. We’ll actually have a plan .??.??. to move the country back to where it was.” For Carson’s sake, the plan better make sense.
Google “Ben Carson gaffes” and you will understand Carson’s third test. The gaffe file is lengthy. When I accessed it last week, it began with the headline: “History of Gaffes Proves Ben Carson Isn’t a Serious Candidate.” And a whole series of exaggerated or unseemly statements followed. By uttering them, Carson played into the hands of the press, for whom gaffes are the bread of journalistic life. And when Carson declined to retract statements such as his equating of America under Obama with Nazi Germany, it triggered further stories.
It got so bad that Carson’s advisers were criticizing him in public. Then, as Williams tells it, he sat down with Carson last fall and “we had a frank conversation. It went very well because we’re brothers.” For 20 years, they had talked by phone every morning as Carson drove to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Williams, whose firm produced the documentary, told Carson his troublesome comments were not “accidents.” They were unworthy of a presidential candidate and must stop. And they have. Carson, Williams says, “has a lot of discipline.” On this test, the verdict is: So far, so good.
The fourth test is his campaign operation. Giles will have a lot to do with its success. He was once a criminal defense lawyer. One of his clients was Richard Pryor, the black comedian. After he and Carson met two decades ago, “Ben and I always had reasons to get together and talk,” Giles says. Like Carson, “I’ve been concerned about the direction of the country for a long time.” He wouldn’t have taken the campaign job, Giles told me, if he didn’t “believe in Ben,” think “Ben can win,” and feel Ben can “make a difference.”
The campaign will certainly be unconventional. Giles has been “vetting people and lining people up” for months. He’s avoided Republican consultants who move from “campaign to campaign” like mercenaries. Instead, he wants people “completely committed to Ben Carson and our principles. They’ve got to believe what we believe.” Since as much as 75 percent of the campaign staff will come from the private sector, it’s not surprising that Giles refers to the Carson agenda as “the new business plan for America.” The other officials—the 25 percent—will be “seasoned election pros.” He has yet to find a campaign manager. Giles describes himself as CEO.
According to Giles, “Ben feels the road [to the White House] has been laid out for him by divine guidance.” Exactly what that means strategy-wise is unclear. But it may affect campaign staffers. When they arrive at work each morning, “there will be a message waiting” on their computer from the director of campaign culture. It will be three or four minutes long. The idea here, Giles says, is to make sure the campaign stays “on message” and “reflects the character of our candidate.” Giles has already chosen the person for the job.
Will a campaign operation like this work? Anyone with doubts about Carson as a presidential candidate is bound to have them about the organization too. “Maybe what we’ve been using is the wrong model for leadership,” Giles says. “Maybe it’s all that experience that’s gotten us into the hole we’re in.” And maybe a new style of campaign organization is required. “While Ben is a rookie and so am I,” Giles says, “we’re going to have a pretty impressive national campaign.” We’ll see.
Who will be in charge? For now, the inner circle consists of Carson, his wife Candy, Giles, Armstrong, Murray, and Logan Delaney, treasurer of Carson’s PAC. But it’s the Carsons who are strategists in chief. They have the last word. They’ll have to work smoothly with the campaign staff for Carson to advance. This is not a given.
Can Carson win the nomination? It’s unlikely, yet possible. Let’s call him an underdog. Stranger things may have happened in politics, though I can’t recall one. An outsider has a higher hill to climb than a regular Republican. Bush and Romney will have a cadre of key Republicans in every state committed to them from the moment they announce. Not so for Carson. For him, simply getting on every state ballot will be a burden.
If nominated, can Carson beat Hillary Clinton or another Democrat? Yes he can. Giles thinks Carson can win 25 percent to 40 percent of the black vote. Williams is doubtful. But Robinson, the draft-Ben leader, says he has “run the numbers” and found that Carson would easily win with 17 percent of the black vote in swing states. “At 17 percent, Hillary loses every swing state in the union, and the Roosevelt coalition is effectively destroyed.” That’s an outcome worth thinking about. ?
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.