During the fall, an interesting double dynamic enveloped the Ben Carson campaign. The outsider candidate was starting to surprise political observers with his strong performance and especially his exceptional fundraising numbers—some of the strongest in the field, beating the long-established GOP bigwigs. The huge hauls were driven by small-dollar donations, not big checks. On the one hand, people outside the campaign were impressed. On the other hand, they looked at the huge amounts Carson was spending on direct mail and telemarketing and wondered whether the strategy was sustainable, or even ethical.
When I asked the Carson campaign about this in October, then-spokesman Doug Watts gamely explained that the point was to build up a fundraising list. Carson, as a first-time politician, had to build up a database of supporters. Sure, many of the campaign’s donors were small-dollar givers identified by telemarketers, but once they were in the system, they’d keep giving, Watts promised.
“Strategically it was our plan to build a donor base,” he said. “There’s only one way you do that—you invest in prospecting in direct mail, prospecting in telemarketing, prospecting online. Prospecting is expensive.” But he said the campaign expected its heavy reliance on direct marketing and telemarketing to drop as the list built.
Watts is no longer with the campaign, having quit in frustration in December, but Carson’s year-end FEC report, released Sunday, suggests that far from decreasing its reliance on these methods, the campaign has only become more reliant on them. The campaign raised $22.6 million, but it spent $27.3 million, and closes out with just $6.6 million cash on hand. (For comparison, Ted Cruz has $18.7 million on hand; Hillary Clinton has $38 million.) Among the largest spending areas, a couple stick out: fundraising phone calls ($2.4 million), and postage and printing ($7.3 million). So do several of the largest payees:
- Action Mailers, $4.5 million
- CMDI, $1.4 million
- Communication Management Source, $1.3 million
- Direct Advantage, $3 million
- Eleventy Marketing, $4.8 million
- InfoCision, $2.4 million
- TMA Direct, $2.9 million
Together, these vendors account for $21.2 million, the vast majority of what Carson spent in the fourth quarter.
Most of these companies are involved in either direct mail or telemarketing for fundraising. Every campaign uses these methods, but they’re very expensive—you have to spend a lot of money to make money—the Carson campaign’s heavy reliance on them fed two allegations. Some observers felt the campaign was unfairly targeting naive low-dollar donors; and either way, the fact that many of the vendors doing the pricey work were connected to the campaign made it look like they were treating the Carson for president push as a way to line their own pockets.
This filing doesn’t do much to assuage those concerns. For example, TMA is run by Mark Murray, one of Carson’s top fundraisers. Murray has also long worked with Eleventy and InfoCision, two Akron, Ohio-based companies. InfoCision has been implicated in past scams. Eleventy’s president is chief marketing officer for Carson. Communication Management Source is run by Joanne Parker, whose husband Dean Parker departed the campaign in December.
Can the Carson campaign do more than just fundraise? In Iowa, he won three delegates, at a cost of $47.5 million so far. It’s hard to see what sort of future it has after the Hawkeye State. Carson came in fourth in Iowa, and things only get rougher from here. In New Hampshire, he’s a distant eight in the RealClearPolitics average, and while he does a little better in South Carolina, it’s still a long way back and will drop if he has two weak showings. Nationally, he’s also down to fourth in a no-man’s-land between the triple leaders Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio and a peloton of also-rans.
What’s peculiar is not just that he has dropped. It’s the circumstances. Typically, a candidate leaves the race because he is out of money or because it becomes clear that voters don’t like him. Yet neither of those apply to Carson. He had another excellent fundraising quarter to close 2015—more on that in a moment—and he’s viewed quite favorably. Nearly a third of Iowa voters viewed him favorably in that DMR poll, and his unfavorability is about even with Marco Rubio in the lowest slot. Nationally, Carson is also well-liked.
The surprise for Carson is perhaps not that he is fading as the race reaches the actual voting stage—it’s how it took so long. In a cycle when pundits’ many predictions have been proved wrong, it was actually fairly easy to guess that Carson, a first-time candidate with a great personal appeal but mixed-up policy positions, would end up near the back of the pack. The question is how he managed to rise and then fall back to earth.
Unless Carson manages to pull some tricks out of his sleeve in New Hampshire, will those small-dollar donors keep writing checks to fund the fundraising machine? Just because you like a guy doesn’t mean you’re willing to set your own money on fire for him.