Ben Carson's Fans Are Filling Town-Hall Meetings and Campaign Coffers

The summer offered an opening to Carson, an outsider without all of the rage.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks on Sept. 30, 2015, in Exeter, New Hampshire.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

It’s been a good two months for Ben Carson.

While Donald Trump managed to suck most of the air out of the first Republican presidential debate, Carson’s limited sound bites, delivered with his usual mellowness, managed to make an impression. Since then, he’s moved into second place in some polls and, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey, his favorability numbers are much better than the race’s front-runner. And as presidential candidates spent the last day of the third quarter making desperate pleas for money to their e-mail lists, another sign of Carson’s growing popularity became public: 353,000 donors made 600,000 donations to his campaign, giving him a third-quarter haul of $20 million

During a campaign stop in Exeter, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, Carson touched on the strength of his fundraising. Asked what he would do to get money out of politics, he said he’d keep doing what he’s doing. “I have not gone out licking the boots of billionaires and special-interest groups. I’m not getting into bed with them,” he said. Pundits and experts predicted his lack of major donors would prevent him from launching a national campaign, he said, “but they forgot about one very important factor: the people. And the people are funding us.”

The people are funding him because they really, really like him. This summer belonged to anti-establishment candidates like Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who expressed the same kind of anger with politics that many Americans feel. But it also offered an opening to Carson, an outsider without all of the rage.

Instead, Carson’s stump speech is filled with optimistic highs and extreme, pessimistic lows. During a town-hall meeting at the RiverWoods retirement community in Exeter, he talked about how America’s exceptionalism impressed Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, then switched over to comparing political correctness to Nazi Germany. He joked that he never meant to get into politics. “I mean, to me that was like anathema, complete filth and dishonesty. And it is, that’s what it is,” he said, to laughs. But then, he told the same room of senior citizens that he entered the race because so many older Americans told him, “I’m just waiting to die. I’ve given up on America.” 

Republican presidential candidate ben carson has his picture taken on sept. 30, 2015, in exeter, new hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has his picture taken on Sept. 30, 2015, in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Supporters at Carson’s town-hall meeting at the University of New Hampshire said they like him because he’s a Christian, he’s modest, and he has integrity. Some said they appreciate that he doesn’t just blame Democrats, but acknowledges that the Republican Party has let them down, too. Others like that he talks about the issues and, in their opinion, offers solutions. (When asked during a news conference on Wednesday about what he would do as president if Hurricane Joaquin made landfall, Carson replied, “I don’t know.”)

Nearly everyone shared his concern about a Muslim president, and defended him against the backlash he generated when he expressed that concern on a Sunday talk show this month. Madeleine Clemmons, a sophomore nursing major, said Carson wasn’t specifically talking about Muslims. “It’s the religion itself, it doesn’t go with the U.S., the Constitution, their laws are totally different,” she said, adding that his comments “made me like him more.”

Bill Ruger, a 67-year-old retired engineer from Dover, said the media was to blame. “They took it out of context, because what he was really saying was a Muslim who believes in Sharia law, we can’t have running this country, because that’s not our Constitution,” he said. A Muslim president would, he added, have to run the country “by our Constitution, not theirs. This is our country.” (What Carson said on Meet the Press, and later extended and revised: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”)

Bringing up the episode seemed to remind some conservatives of the –isms the GOP is often accused of indulging in. But for Republicans, Carson is proof that accusations of racism and sexism are just tools to divide the country.

Republican presidential candidate ben carson enters a town-hall event on sept. 30, 2015, in exeter, new hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson enters a town-hall event on Sept. 30, 2015, in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

“I think it’s awful” how the media responded to Carson's comments, said Joanna Italia, a 60-something retired special-education teacher from Maine. “I believe that the president and his administration and the media has tried to divide us, black and white divide us. I’ve never seen the races this divided ever, and it’s a shame, it’s absolutely a shame because we need to be united. We’re all Americans.”

Ruger was more blunt. “For the last seven years or so, the liberal media has been accusing the Republican Party of being racist towards Obama, and I think what you’re seeing now is that the Republican Party is not racist, because Carson’s polls are going up,” he said. “Obviously in New Hampshire here, the majority of the people are white—all of them pretty much, if you know what I mean. And he’s not racist and we’re not racist as Republicans.”

His wife, Diane Ruger, a 66-year-old retired radiological technologist, agreed. “We need a unifier, we don’t need a divider,” she said.

 

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