OPIOID SERIES:

Small donations adding up to big money for Ben Carson

Small donations adding up to big money for Ben Carson

Ben Carson has raised more than $6 million since he launched his presidential exploratory committee in early March, and the Republican White House hopeful is confident he can rake in more than $50 million.

The retired neurosurgeon attracted more than 120,000 donations, according to campaign numbers provided to The Hill. That comes out to an average donation of about $50.

The fundraising pace has picked up recently: $2.6 million of Carson’s campaign cash has poured in since he formally announced he would run for president on May 4.

Carson told The Hill Wednesday that he needed to see the money come in before he launched his bid.

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“The whole purpose of the exploratory committee was to see if the verbal support would translate into money, because if it didn’t, I wasn’t going to run,” Carson said in a phone interview from a P.F. Chang’s restaurant in Baltimore, where he and his family were celebrating his son’s graduation.

“But I’ve heard from so many people who say they’ve never donated to a campaign, never voted before, or never even registered to vote,” Carson added. “We’ve brought all of those people into the fold, and that’s how our country is supposed to work.”

Despite Carson’s success in small-dollar fundraising, he faces deep skepticism in GOP circles. Some Republicans don’t believe he will be able to compete with the other top-tier candidates who are bringing in tens of millions of dollars through super-PACs and the political networks they have built over decades.

Campaign experts have estimated candidates will need at least $50 million to make it through the GOP primary.

“I think we’ll do that,” Carson said. 

At the same time, the Tea Party favorite is moving up in the polls.

A Fox News survey released last week showed Carson surging into the top tier of GOP presidential candidates, tying former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the No. 1 slot. Carson and Bush each took 13 percent support in the poll, a 7-percentage-point jump for Carson, who was tied for sixth place in the same poll in April. Bush is expected to officially launch his campaign soon.

Carson’s supporters believe he has as much room to grow as any of the candidates. The 63-year-old remains relatively unknown, with 49 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of him.

Carson said the polls and the fundraising numbers will get his competitors and right-leaning media outlets to take his candidacy more seriously — and likely mark him as a target.

“Obviously both of those things will happen,” Carson said. “But we’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about telling the truth and trying to save the country. Besides, it’s not like they haven’t been coming after me the whole time. I’ll get worried when they stop coming after me.”

Carson vowed not to “go into the slime pit” during the campaign, saying he would defend himself but wouldn’t directly attack his opponents, even if they target him during a debate.

“The word ‘retaliate’ is not in his vocabulary,” said Armstrong Williams, a conservative media pundit who is Carson’s longtime business manager and adviser.

Mike Murray, the president and CEO of TMA Direct, the marketing firm Carson hired to manage his small-dollar donations, gave The Hill an exclusive inside look at the grassroots fundraising numbers.

Murray, who served in the same role on Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the small-dollar donations are unprecedented.

“I’ve never seen it proliferate the way it has with Ben,” Murray said.

While most candidates begin a campaign with an established book of contacts and former donors they’ve accumulated over a lifetime in politics, Carson, who has never before run for political office, had to start from scratch. 

Since rocketing onto the political scene at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, Carson has added more than a half-million people to his email database.

“I’ve never seen someone go from zero to 60 as fast as he has,” Murray said. “I think it’s safe to say that nobody has built a grassroots following in the past 18 months commensurate to what Dr. Carson has built.”

Murray said he initially set a goal of pulling in about 1,000 donations a day. Carson modestly exceeded that goal during his exploratory committee phase and has blown past it since his official announcement, averaging about 3,000 donations per day.

More than half of Carson’s small-dollar haul, about $3.3 million, was donated online through fundraising emails, Web ads or through his website. 

Murray said Carson’s online engagement metrics — how many people open his emails, how long they spend reading the emails, watching videos, or perusing his website, and the frequency with which those visits convert into donations — is double the industry standard.

Murray said a successful response rate for the direct mail fundraising industry is about 1 percent, and the first direct-mail package he sent out on Carson’s behalf drew a response rate of over 10 percent.

“There’s no sign we’re slowing down,” Murray said. 

The campaign has hired a handful of advisers and national fundraisers to expand Carson’s focus beyond grassroots fundraising. His national finance director is Amy Pass, another veteran of Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, who helped the Georgia Republican raise more than $52 million.

“I’m going to let the big money come to me, and it will,” Carson said. “They’ll see what’s going on, and they’ll come. In the meantime, we have everything we need. You don’t have to run an expensive campaign. We’re focused on being efficient.”

Still, Republican operatives believe Carson’s political inexperience will ultimately doom his campaign. He has a penchant for generating controversial headlines, and his political team is largely made up of Washington outsiders.

Murray argues Carson’s data operations will give him an edge in the crowded field.

“The data has several purposes,” he said. “Sure, it’s to raise money, but it’s also to communicate his message and get out the vote. … The real endgame is to have people show up at the polls.”