Is Ben Carson the Most Popular Man at CPAC?

The draft Ben Carson movement swarmed the first half of CPAC, but that doesn’t mean he’s the new Rand Paul.

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Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Subjectively, Ben Carson might be the most popular potential 2016 candidate at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Despite the empty seats at his Thursday morning speech, people were crowding in the hallways trying to catch a glimpse of him at his smaller appearances, including at a reception for activists Wednesday night and a coffee reception Thursday morning.

Outside of the Thursday reception, Christine Klaserner, 52, said she loves Carson, who was born in her hometown of Detroit. “He’s a real American, like the people that we are around every day,” she said. “He’s not a Washington insider and we like that, we need that.” 

Meanwhile the Draft Ben Carson movement is a constant presence, bombarding attendees with kind words about their favored candidate. For the first two days of CPAC volunteers holding “Run Ben Run” signs and wearing “Run Ben Run” shirts seemed to follow him wherever he went, while regularly posting about him on the activity feed of the CPAC app, urging him to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. 

“They’ve asked me about 10 times for a sticker. They’re everywhere,” Joey Gamrat, 17, said Thursday outside of Carson’s coffee reception.

That was intentional. Vernon Robinson, the campaign director of the National Draft Ben Carson for President committee planned for Carson supporters to swarm certain areas of the conference, so “it was impossible for someone to walk in that door without a Carson supporter trying to stick a sticker on them,” he said. This year the organization brought approximately 210 volunteers and staff members to the conference.

The draft movement’s immediate goal is to give Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has won the last two CPAC straw polls, a run for his money. Despite his popularity, Robinson argued that Paul’s foreign policy positions and his past comments of strict voter ID laws might hurt him. “There’s no one in this building, except for the media, that doesn’t support voter ID laws,” he said. (Last spring, Paul said the GOP shouldn’t emphasize voter ID laws because the strategy was “offending people,” though he later said he believes voter ID laws are up to each state to decide.)

The long-term goal is to get people to vote for Carson in the primaries. “I think that a lot of folks are enthusiastic about Dr. Carson,” he said. “Can we turn that enthusiasm into support so they actually vote for him in Republican primaries and caucuses? We’re working on it.

The question is, when you strip away the draft volunteers, and the flocks of media, who’s left? Robinson argued that “there’s a lot of enthusiasm here for Ben Carson,” noting that he finished third in the 2014 CPAC straw poll. He did—but Paul won with 31 percent of the vote, and Carson came in third with nine. And some of his supporters aren’t sure if they’ll even vote for him. Gamrat said he was supporting Paul, and Klaserner and her daughter hadn’t decided.

“We haven’t voted yet,” Klaserner said. “So I don’t know yet. There’s a lot of people here that we like.” That list includes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, but it does not include Jeb Bush, whose Friday speech Klaserner plans to skip.

“The problem is that the GOP establishment will pick for us and that, unfortunately, is a problem,” she said. “We don’t need another Bush. We don’t need another Clinton. We need an outsider, and someone like Ben Carson.” 

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