Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is interviewed in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.
About a month ago, a little-known, soft-spoken political outsider stole some of the attention away from a well-known outsider on the biggest of stages.
With millions watching, retired neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson delivered perhaps the most memorable moment of the first GOP debate with his closing statement.
His routine was charming: While other candidates listed their political or business accomplishments, Carson instead talked about how he was the “only one to separate Siamese twins.” The “only one to operate on babies while they were still in the mother’s womb.”
And here was the killer.
He was the “only one to take out half a brain — though if you go to Washington, you’d think that someone beat me to it,” Carson said. Cue the laughs, the applause, the focus-group sentiment going through the roof.
Some people knew these facts about him. Others caught on when he directly criticized President Barack Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.
But since propelling himself to more national stardom last month, Carson hasn’t looked back. Largely gone are the awkward interviews and provocative comments that marked the early part of his campaign. Before the first Republican debate, Carson was fifth in an average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. He was fourth in Iowa, the all-important first-caucus state that his campaign says is a “linchpin” to his overall strategy.
For the moment at least, he looks like the candidate who’s poised to take on — and possibly take out — Donald Trump. For the first time in a long time, a poll of Iowa on Monday showed Trump not in an outright lead. He was tied with Carson, with both of them grabbing almost half of the Iowa Republican vote at this early stage of the campaign.
And in a national poll released Thursday, Carson was by far the strongest contender to Trump, who dominated almost every other of his Republican rivals. The poll showed Carson was the only candidate with a higher image rating than Trump among Republican voters nationally.
The survey also found that Carson is the only candidate whom Trump would lose a theoretical head-to-head matchup to. In fact, Republican voters would prefer Carson to Trump by a 19-point margin if they were the final two candidates in the primary.
“The fact that the only one who can challenge Trump is the only other candidate who has never held or run for elected office speaks volumes to the low regard GOP voters have for the establishment,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, which released Thursday’s national poll.
And for that, the Ben Carson campaign would like to take a moment to thank Donald Trump.
Fueled by Trump’s bombastic entry into the Republican presidential race earlier this summer, America has pined for an outsider. Lured by Trump, a record audience of 24 million people tuned in to the first Republican debate in droves. But Carson — along with another outsider, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — has been one of the few to take advantage.
“There’s no question that the attention that Donald Trump has brought to himself and the campaign has worked in our favor,” Doug Watts, the communications director of Carson’s campaign, told Business Insider.
“Why does it work in our favor and not everybody else’s favor? … I think the answer’s pretty clear: That not since 1992 has America — Republicans, Democrats, Independents — been so keen on not electing, reelecting, traditional lifetime politicians. They’re just sick and tired of it. The ol’ Einstein quote, which wasn’t actually from Einstein: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.'”
As the campaign continues, Carson’s advisers are banking that his persona — less bombast and more “nice” — and his outsider status gives him the advantage.
“GOP primary voters have yet to show much appetite for or excitement about their establishment candidates, instead rallying behind ‘damn the system’ candidates,” said Ben LaBolt, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on both of President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “The rise of Carson and Trump suggests Bush, Rubio, et. al face a much steeper path than anticipated.”
Watts credits an outside group that encouraged Carson to run for laying much of the groundwork in Iowa. More than a year and a half ago, the “Run Ben Run” group started up with a primary focus on the Hawkeye State. They added volunteers and supporters, reached out to the party base, and identified about 50,000 potential voters about a year ago.
Of course, politics is a different game from brain surgery. And some strategists question whether a lifelong outsider will be able to muster the political muscle to win early and often.
“I have my doubts about his campaign’s organizational ability to turn out a large number of supporters for a complex caucus vote, but he has a lot of potential,” said Matt Mackowiak, a veteran Republican strategist and the president of the Potomac Strategy Group. “We will see if he can survive as a top-tier candidate.”
Still, in Iowa alone, Carson’s campaign has eight or nine paid staffers, Watts said. It has ramped up phone-banking and advertisement-mailing, already running about two weeks’ worth of advertising there.
And though Iowa is “certainly a linchpin,” Watts cited campaign poll numbers that show Carson in either first or second in 10 states. He said the campaign has five regional directors, five states with state directors, and full-time staffs in four of those five states.
“We’ve got a long-term strategy and program here that’s in place and being executed,” he said.
Carson’s strategy has been much more low-key than other candidates like Trump — or even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. The Carson campaign has emphasized building a base through social media, speaking engagements, and conservative television and talk-radio appearances.
Consider these numbers: Carson’s Facebook page has 2.6 million fans, 2.2 million of which have come since he launched his campaign. He also has 450,000 new followers on Twitter. The results: a donor base that was zero on March 3 has become 275,000 people and counting today.
“You can say we’ve been doing a lot of work. It’s, more or less, under-the-radar work,” Watts said. “And I think we’re starting to reach a tipping point where it has to have a more public outlet, and these polls are the way to go.”
For his part, Trump has started to take notice. During an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this week, Trump dismissed Carson’s rise, saying he was a “good guy” but that he’s been “spending a tremendous amount of advertising money out in Iowa.” Trump proceeded to say twice more that Carson was spending a heavy amount in Iowa.
Watts said that’s not true — the campaign has spent “about a couple hundred-thousand dollars, nothing but a drop of the bucket.” It spent most of that during the first two weeks after the debate.
In an interview with The Daily Caller later in the week, Trump wasn’t as keen to pull his punches. He questioned Carson’s experience saying that, as a doctor, he has not created the type of jobs necessary to be commander-in-chief.
But true to form, Carson’s campaign played nothing but nice when asked about Trump’s comments.
Said Watts: “I’ve mostly seen Mr. Trump’s comments to be flattering and friendly.”