Is Ben Carson the Republican Who Can Defeat Hillary Clinton?

Carson’s draft committee is raising more cash than Clinton’s, driven by what supporters say is the certain math involved in nominating a black Republican.

World-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon and philanthropist Dr. Benjamin Carson Sr. speaks to an audience in Central Michigan University in October 2009.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 6, 2014, 12:19 p.m.

It’s hard to miss the gos­pel of Ben Car­son here at CPAC, the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, held an­nu­ally just out­side of Wash­ing­ton.

Every eager con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist who rides the free shuttle to the event will have to watch a video on the bus’s screens of a des­cend­ant of John Philip Sousa ex­plain­ing why Car­son is the “the only can­did­ate who can beat Hil­lary Clin­ton” in 2016. And the first 2,000 people who check in­to their hotel rooms here will find Car­son on their room keys. He’s on the CPAC straw poll, and his fans down­stairs at the ex­hib­i­tion hall will tell you why he’s a math­em­at­ic­al shoo-in for the pres­id­ency.

It’s a ma­jor dis­play in some of CPAC’s most prime real es­tate for someone who has nev­er held of­fice and is not on most pun­dits’ list of po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates.

Be­fore you laugh, con­sider this: The group that put Car­son on the hotel keys has out­raised Clin­ton’s draft com­mit­tee, Ready for Hil­lary; has been on the ground in Iowa; and is work­ing from the play­book writ­ten by Howard Dean and Barack Obama.

It’s all the work of the Na­tion­al Draft Ben Car­son for Pres­id­ent Com­mit­tee, which is try­ing to get the con­ser­vat­ive neurosur­geon to run for pres­id­ent. It’s part fan club, part savvy cam­paign.

The case for Car­son is all about math and race. Car­son is Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and his sup­port­ers think that will be his path to vic­tory. He’s “a re­spec­ted fig­ure among black Amer­ic­ans,” the video ex­plains, and if he can win just 17 per­cent of the black vote, it is “math­em­at­ic­ally im­possible” for a Demo­crat to win the White House.

Ver­non Robin­son, a former three-time con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate and George H.W. Bush ap­pointee, star­ted the draft cam­paign with John Philip Sousa IV and oth­ers. He says Car­son, who is sched­uled to speak Sat­urday at CPAC, is the only can­did­ate who can broaden the GOP base among minor­it­ies, while passing muster with con­ser­vat­ive primary voters.

“At 17 per­cent, Hil­lary loses all of the swing states and the Roosevelt Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion is des­troyed,” Robin­son ex­plains. “In ad­di­tion, Ben Car­son is able to clearly and calmly ar­tic­u­late con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions in a way the av­er­age voter can un­der­stand.”¦ He’s the only guy who can bond with all of the Amer­ic­an people.”

The draft com­mit­tee raised $2.83 mil­lion dol­lars from 47,000 donors in its first six months of op­er­a­tion, which ended in late Feb­ru­ary. “We crushed Ready for Hil­lary in fun­drais­ing,” Robin­son gloats. The main group sup­port­ing the former sec­ret­ary of State raised $1.25 mil­lion its first six months, and then $2.75 mil­lion in the next half-year.

“This isn’t something that three drunks came up with at a bar,” he con­tin­ues.

The group is try­ing to run a soph­ist­ic­ated, if quix­ot­ic, cam­paign. They’re mod­el­ing them­selves not after a na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an group, but Or­gan­iz­ing for Amer­ica, the pro-Obama group, and Howard Dean’s 2004 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, which Robin­son holds up as the mod­el of re­spons­ive­ness and agil­ity.

There’s a long his­tory of draft cam­paigns in Amer­ic­an polit­ics, with former NATO lead­er Wes­ley Clark be­ing per­haps the most re­cent semi-suc­cess­ful ex­ample.

But is Car­son even in­ter­ested? The famed neurosur­geon, who wrote con­tro­ver­sial polit­ic­al books be­fore emer­ging on the na­tion­al scene last year when he chal­lenged Pres­id­ent Obama dur­ing the Na­tion­al Pray­er Break­fast, has said he might be open to run­ning if no sat­is­fact­ory can­did­ate emerges.

And “Car­sono­lo­gists,” as Robin­son calls the de­voted fans who parse every word from Car­son’s mouth like it was com­ing out of the Polit­buro, have no­ticed a subtle but po­ten­tially mean­ing­ful shift in his tense choice lately. Car­son has gone from say­ing he “hopes” the right can­did­ate will emerge to say­ing he “hoped” one would, per­haps in­dic­at­ing that he’s mov­ing to­ward a run. Robin­son is try­ing to push Car­son there by send­ing him 4,000 pe­ti­tions a week ur­ging him to get in the race.

Robin­son, who proudly notes that he raised $6 mil­lion dur­ing his three runs for Con­gress, has spoken to Car­son only three times, each of them brief. The first time, at a book sign­ing, Robin­son asked the would-be pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate to sign not Car­son’s book, but Robin­son’s copy of a book about the suc­cess­ful cam­paign to draft Barry Gold­wa­ter.

At the second in­ter­ac­tion, Robin­son asked Car­son if he had no­ticed the work of the draft com­mit­tee. “‘That’d be very help­ful if someone was run­ning for pres­id­ent,’” Robin­son re­mem­bers Car­son reply­ing slyly.

And at the third meet­ing, Robin­son got to sit next to Car­son at a table the group bought at a char­ity event in Phoenix, where Robin­son per­formed his best im­per­son­a­tion of Car­son to the man him­self. He also brought along a girl en­rolled in the loc­al Big Broth­ers Big Sis­ters, who wants to be a doc­tor and was thrilled to meet Car­son.

In Janu­ary, Robin­son was on the ground dur­ing the midterm Iowa caucus to urge caucus-go­ers to keep Car­son in mind in the next elec­tion. “‘How do I know this isn’t a scam?’” he re­calls one po­ten­tial donor ask­ing. “I def­in­itely wouldn’t be cam­paign­ing in Iowa in the winter!” Robin­son jokes.

Next up, the group will be in New Hamp­shire and Cali­for­nia, and is hop­ing to build out chapters in every state.

“We’re the Rod­ney Danger­field of draft com­mit­tees,” Robin­son says. Goofy, loud, and easy to un­der­es­tim­ate.

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