Does anyone care at this point? This is juicy inside-baseball fun for political junkies, but for the other 99.5 percent of the GOP electorate it’s a footnote to a campaign that began sinking weeks ago. Ted Cruz passed Carson for the first time in an Iowa poll the week before Thanksgiving, a few days after the massacre in Paris; his lead widened earlier this month after the jihadi slaughter in San Bernardino. A guy who, by the admission of one of his own advisors, was struggling with foreign policy was a bad fit for a country newly frightened by terrorism. As it is, I think there’s a fair chance that Carson ends up in mid-single-digits in Iowa on caucus night, possibly as far back as sixth or seventh place. He’s already as low as six percent in one recent poll there; Christie is making a late play for respectability in the state and Mike Huckabee’s allies are vowing an all-out attack on Cruz to win back some social-con votes. Carson’s remaining supporters will have to decide whether to stick with him and lose, defect to Cruz and help an evangelical win, or defect to Huckabee in order to register their opposition to Cruz more noisily. What’s left of Carson at that point?
Anyway. Here’s David Graham with quickie background on what led to today’s news:
The resignation comes after a tumultuous couple of weeks. First, The Wall Street Journal reported that Carson’s burn rate—the amount of cash his campaign is spending, compared to what it’s bringing in—remains high, even as it takes in huge sums. Carson, under pressure, said he’d shake up his campaign team. Then he changed his mind, telling the Times, “I have 100 percent confidence in my campaign team.” Then he promised to get more aggressive. Then he again hinted at a shakeup.
“The entire team was left wondering if they had a job,” campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Hill of the shake-up talk. “It made for a great Christmas.” How’d it get into Carson’s head that his campaign team, rather than his own performance on the stump, needed an overhaul? Bennett blames Armstrong Williams, who describes himself as Carson’s business manager and whom others describe as Carson’s svengali. Although Williams isn’t officially a part of the campaign, he seems to have more influence over the candidate than Carson’s campaign staff does, which included arranging the media interviews where Carson first suggested a campaign shake-up. For Bennett, that was the final straw:
On Williams urging Carson to talk to reporters about campaign unrest, Bennett called it a “stupid move.” He said it was “absolutely correct” to describe his frustrations with Williams and the comments Carson made to The Post especially about disagreeing with Bennett’s advice as having driven his decision.
“I expect lots of other people will resign today as well,” Bennett added. “The divide between the outside and inside is too deep. There is nothing we could change structurally at this point to make it better. It is what it is, Dr. Carson is who he is. I have so much respect for him but he wants to do things in a way that I don’t, so it’s best that I step down. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”…
Bennett said he hasn’t ruled out jumping onto another campaign but he first wants to rest. “Sleep. Sleep. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m very tired. “The internal [expletive] became what the campaign was about. It was sad. Petty. It became mind numbing to me. Having worked so hard on building up the fundraising operation and getting millions behind Dr. Carson so he’d be ready for 2016, I got pulled into this [expletive]. It’s not why I got in this business.
Supposedly Carson called Bennett this morning to tell him that he was going to let communications director Doug Watts go. Bennett, suspecting that Carson was once again following Williams’s advice instead of his, quit on the spot.
“[Carson] tried to blame some of the problems in the campaign on silly things and I said Ben we all know the root of our problems, let’s not pretend it’s not Armstrong Williams,” Bennett told ABC News on the phone. “Ben said I’ll talk to him, I’ll talk to him. But I’ve heard that for nine months now.”…
“I don’t know who all will still be here, it’s not my problem” Bennett said. “I can play amateur politics at home with my 9-year-old I don’t need to do it at the professional level.”
“No one wants Armstrong Williams anywhere near the Oval Office,” said Bennett to the AP. A question dogging Team Carson for months is this: Are they actually trying to win or are they simply building a brand they can monetize later? Carson raised another ton of money this quarter, leading all Republican candidates with $23 million taken in. If you’re trying to win, that money should be plowed into ads and GOTV operations in Iowa to ensure turnout on caucus night. If you’re trying instead to make bank, that money should be plowed into more fundraising, especially direct mail, telemarketing, and other means of identifying passionate Carson supporters. Once you have their names, addresses, and other data, you can use the info to target them later with more advertising (like, say, for a lucrative Super PAC) or sell the list to others for their own ad purposes. Carson’s team has done a bang-up job not only of finding small donors — they’ve received contributions from 600,000 individual entities since March — but of finding ones who typically don’t make political donations. More than 18,000 people who hadn’t otherwise given money to any candidates for federal office since 2007 gave $200 or more to Ben Carson this year. That was tops among all Republicans, with only Ted Cruz among the rest of the field anywhere close to Carson. Who’s getting all of that money if it’s not going for actual campaign operations? Why, consultants:
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) December 31, 2015
And of course Carson benefits financially too by increased exposure for his books, higher demand for paid speeches, and so forth. The guys at Red State have been on his back about this for months, with streiff noting most recently that mailing out lithographs of yourself to your fans doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re trying to win an election but does make sense if you’re trying to build “brand” loyalty. “[T]he fundraising operation [seems to] exist,” said streiff back in October, “solely to perpetuate the fundraising operation.” I bet we’ll be hearing something about that from Bennett and Watts now that they’ve parted ways with Carson and Williams. The big question going forward, once Carson inevitably finishes out of the money in Iowa and shuts things down, is how strongly he endorsed this idea of a money-machine campaign. Was he sincerely trying to win and ended up being exploited by consultants who took advantage of an amateur with lots of goodwill they could cash in on? Or was his own personal goal all along to build that donor list and let the chips fall where they may in Iowa?