Ben Carson Is the Republican Small-Dollar King

But his campaign finance report shows he's spending lots of money to raise it.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Presidential candidate Ben Carson is the king of Republican small dollars. The rookie politician's third-quarter fundraising report shows he's raised $19.6 million in contributions of $200 or less this year. That appears to be a record for Republicans running for president.

Carson, whose $21 million haul for the third quarter was more than any of his Republican rivals', raised more than half of that amount in contributions under $200. Of the $31 million Carson has raised so far this year, 62 percent came in small donations.

No other Republican appears to have had as much success with small donors as Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has never run for elective office. At this point in his second presidential campaign, George W. Bush had raised $8.8 million in chunks of $200, according  to historical calculations from the Campaign Finance Institute. Ron Paul, a former congressman whose son, Senator Rand Paul, is running for president this year, had raised $6.1 million in small donations by this point in the 2012 cycle, according to data on file with the Federal Election Commission.

Since the rise of the Internet made it possible for politicians to raise big bucks in small amounts—a gambit pioneered by 2004 Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean and perfected by President Barack Obama, small donations have become a closely watched barometer of grassroots support. Carson's haul, while impressive by his party's standards, is still far under Obama's. At this point in his 2012 reelection campaign, the president had raked in $41 million in donations under $200.

Carson's fundraising success does come with an important asterisk however: He paid plenty of money to raise it. His third quarter report lists more than $14 million in expenditures, much of the money going to marketing firms. The proudly non-political candidate's large stable of consultants include the marketing firm Infocision, which got $1.4 million in for fundraising; TMA Direct, a list management and direct marketing firm, which got $1.3 million for list rental and web services, and Eleventy Marketing, which takes its name from The Lord of the Rings, and got more than $4 million for database management and Web services.

The key to grassroots fundraising is an established infrastructure, according to Brendan Glavin, data manager for the Washington-based Campaign Finance Institute. That could include the operation available to an incumbent, like Obama in 2011, but for a challenger it could be a big supporter base, assuming the campaign keeps in touch with them regularly.

“Carson was already active in that conservative direct mail fundraising arena,” Glavin said.

Zachary Mider contributed reporting.