Yet despite the protests of the Carson camp, doubts about his organization haven’t totally gone away. “I still think he’s not a threat,” said one veteran Iowa operative with a rival GOP campaign, who also called Carson’s campaign in the Hawkeye State “a smokescreen.” Carson, the operative said, has benefitted from enthusiastic support among the evangelical, home-school community. “The home-school group is motivated. They’re close-knit, and they organize themselves,” the operative said. But he’s also facing more competition for that bloc than did Huckabee in 2008 or Santorum in 2012, and the rival operative argued that Carson has less of a presence in Iowa both in terms of his staff and his own personal visits, which rank in the middle of the pack among the many GOP contenders. “I think that come caucus night, you’ll see him get 12 or 13 percent,” the operative said. “He won’t go below. He won’t go above. His floor is his ceiling.”
Carson’s organization has long relied on direct-mail marketing, and in February he announced that he had hired Mike Murray, the CEO of a direct-mail firm, TMI Direct, as a senior adviser. Murray’s company has gone on to earn more than $1 million from Carson’s campaign, nearly one-fifth of the total it spent during the first half of 2015. Watts said Murray was no longer receiving a salary from the campaign and served only as an outside adviser. “If we didn’t pay it to him, we’d be paying it to somebody else,” he said. Yet to the rival operative I spoke to, Carson’s reliance on direct mail was another red flag in a state where voters are famous for wanting a personal connection with the candidates they caucus for. “That never works in Iowa,” the source said.
The debate over Carson’s organization won’t be settled until caucus time, but why is he cresting in the polls now? He did not seem to stand out in the first Republican debate last month, but he has shot up in the polls since then more than any other hopeful, including Carly Fiorina. As with most other things in this year’s race, the answer might come back to Donald Trump. Conservative voters are clearly looking for outsiders at the moment, and Carson’s anti-Washington message is “Trump without the fireworks,” Strawn observed. He’s a genial man, with a demeanor that’s almost too soft-spoken for a politician.
Carson’s campaign is also perfectly happy to credit Trump. “It’s probably succeeded a little faster than we expected, and quite honestly we owe a little bit of that to Donald Trump,” Watts told me. “He pulled the attention of a lot of Americans to the presidential primary races.”
I think people are realizing, ‘Oh, there are two people singing the same song, but in different keys.’ Quite honestly, that’s accrued to our benefit.
While Trump’s is a “New Yorker style,” Watts said, Carson delivers a similar message in a more “professorial, intellectual way.” Perhaps, then, the Carson boomlet is the first sign of the GOP turning away from Trump, or at least testing out a less bombastic alternative.