DES MOINES, Iowa -- Ben Carson is defying Iowa caucus logic. He has visited the state on just two days over the last two months and doesn’t intend to return until nearly a month from now. Yet he is leading in the polls here -- and nationally.
“It’s always nice to be back in Iowa. Last time I was here it was so hot,” Carson said while stopping in the state earlier this month -- his first visit since he stopped by the Iowa State Fair in August.
Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2008 caucuses was in part blamed on her lack of retail politics here. Meanwhile, candidates like Rick Santorum have traditionally been able to pull out surprise wins by traveling every inch of the state. In 2012, Santorum visited each one of the state’s 99 counties and cashed in on that retail approach with a narrow victory.
Carson has hardly been in the state but a recent Monmouth University poll of Iowa Republicans shows him leading Donald Trump 32 percent to 18 percent here. Carson's campaign says that even though the candidate isn't criss-crossing the vast state, his supporters are energized.
“I think our work on the ground, and I think the ability to get Ben’s message in front of people and utilize his volunteers to be evangelists for him help his support,” said Ryan Rhodes, Carson’s Iowa state director.
Rhodes, the former chair of the Iowa Tea Party, heads the campaign’s strategy in the state. He served in 2012 as Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party outreach director.
Rhodes is surrounded by five other paid staffers--one field organizer in the heavily conservative northwestern corner of the state and another in populated eastern Iowa. The other three are centered in Des Moines and travel out almost daily--canvassing college campuses and holding tailgates outside local churches on Sunday mornings.
But before Rhodes and the staffers signed on as part of Carson’s official operation, the super PAC “The 2016 Committee”--originally created to encourage and “draft” the neurosurgeon to run--established a grassroots network of support across the state. Tina Goff, regional director for the group, joined the operation in April 2014 and began staffing and reeling in connections in Iowa. Goff is a veteran of past presidential campaigns as well as Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2010 successful campaign.
“From the get-go, I felt there was something different with this person,” Goff said. “He wanted to unite, not divide.”
The super PAC, which by law cannot directly coordinate with the campaign, has two full-time staffers but an additional 23 that it pays for part-time work--about 15 of those are high school or college students, working 10 to 30 hours a week.
The two-pronged attack--super PAC and campaign--has built what, combined, is the largest operation for a Republican candidate in Iowa.
“In a way, people have kind of gotten the impression that [Carson is] still here all the time,” said Jamie Johnson, an ordained minister and the former senior director for Rick Perry’s most recent campaign. “I’m not sure that they’re aware that the actual number of days he’s been here on the ground in Iowa are less than many of the other candidates. They don’t think of it that way because in every county there’s a Carson presence.”
The official Carson campaign says it has identified more than 150 county co-chairs to ignite caucus supporters and the super PAC released its own list of 99 county chairs last year. And the campaign is also running two television ads in the state.
Other campaigns have noticed the efforts. On Tuesday in Sioux City, Donald Trump took a shot at Carson’s apparatus in the state.
"In Ben’s case, his super PAC is running Iowa,” said Trump, distinguishing himself from GOP contenders that lean on their super PACs for financial or ground support.
Ten super PAC-funded billboards with Carson’s likeness are also currently planted along Iowa highways with several more going up this week.
The Iowa Vulnerabilities
With three months until the caucus, Carson faces several potential hurdles that could threaten his position atop Iowa polling.
Those same polls showing Carson’s increased support also raise questions over how committed Iowa Republicans are to ultimately caucusing for him.
The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll found 32 percent of Iowans who backed Trump in the poll were firmly committed to the businessman. Carson, in contrast, only received firm backing from 15 percent of those polled who said he was his or her top pick.
“There’s a core group of Trump supporters who are so angry at Washington, and particularly their own party in Washington, that they’ve latched onto Donald Trump as their voice,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute who conducted their latest poll. “And they’re not moving from that.”
And four out of every five Iowa Republicans have still yet to make up their minds, indicating an opportunity for the other 14 candidates to shift in the polls through the winter.
The Carson operation in Iowa is also competing with Trump’s hard-charging organization. Despite moving into second place, Trump continues to appear in the state every one to two weeks to boisterous crowds of thousands, collecting names and heading toward his campaign’s goal of garnering its precinct captains by Thanksgiving.
“I still see Trump’s and Carson’s people at almost every event—maybe 90 percent of the time,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committeeman from West Des Moines, comparing the to Marco Rubio’s operation that “hasn’t been here.”
“You can have the best candidate in the world, but if you don’t have someone to execute it, it’s not going to happen,” Scheffler said.
While Carson’s rise in the polls is widely attributed to significant backing within the evangelical Christian community (33 percent in Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll), there are several other candidates looking to dilute that electorate’s support for Carson, including Bobby Jindal and previous caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. In 2012, evangelicals made up 57 percent of GOP caucusgoers, according to Pew Research Center.
“I think that with Carson supporters there’s a lot more room for them to move to somebody else, including potentially at some point to one of the more establishment candidates,” Murray said. “[Other candidates] have the opportunity to win some of them back--to some of these establishment candidates--if they can present the right package to them.”
At the forefront of that pack is well-funded Ted Cruz. And as Carson continues on his book tour that has suspended nearly all campaigning, Cruz has escalated his presence here significantly in October.
In third place with 10 percent in the latest Iowa poll, Cruz travelled on cross-state tours both of the last two weeks. He returned this weekend for major all-call candidate events that attracted thousands in Sioux City and Des Moines.
Carson was absent for both.
“[Cruz is] the one big competing force they have to deal with,” Scheffler said. “If Carson wants to seal the deal there, hopefully you can be here a little more often.”
And coinciding with the rise in the polls is a greater focus on Carson’s political positions. Trump indicated earlier this week he intends to highlight those.
“You look at different things having to do with Ben, and there's a lot of contradiction and a lot of questions,” Trump said.
He added: “A lot of things will come out. You know, like Ben was pro-abortion not so long ago as everybody has told me. I don't know it personally, but that's what I'm told -- I've been told and all of a sudden he's so hard on abortion under no circumstance, virtually, can there be exceptions.”
And Cruz took his first direct swipe at Carson at a campaign stop in a Marshalltown, Iowa, café last week for having “advocated” and “supported a path to citizenship for those here illegally.”
Efforts to further lay out the distinctions with Carson may be more clearly efforted in the months ahead.
“Ben Carson is a good man. And he has support,” said Matt Schultz, the chairman for Cruz’s Iowa campaign. “But I feel like when people meet and get to know everyone, they’re going to see Cruz is the most consistent conservative in the field. You’re not going to see him flip flopping positions.”
Schultz added: “Politics is a tough business and everyone has their day in the light. Caucus-goers are dancing with Ben Carson right now. I think they’ll end up with Ted Cruz.”
In last week's GOP debate, no candidates took swipes at the new front-runner and there’s a certain risk that would come with running negative ads against him, the campaign said.
“We’ll be ready for them if they come,” Rhodes said. “But I don’t think I expect someone to come full throttle at someone with 85-percent favorability. I think it would hurt them more than it helps.”
In Iowa, Cruz already wrapped up the endorsement of conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace, and U.S. Rep. Steve King’s son is working for a super PAC backing Cruz. However, The Family Leader, an influential social conservative group in the state, will not take its position until after it hosts a forum with candidates on Nov. 20.
Rhodes said Carson “would be happy” to receive the endorsement of The Family Leader.
And homeschooling parents in Iowa--a segment of the state’s conservative population--have yet to coalesce around one candidate.
For Carson, however, the breadth of his appeal across segmented groups of Republicans is what may make him the best positioned to challenge Trump and hold off Cruz or Rubio.
“He’s in Ted Cruz’s way as far as the religious vote is concerned. He’s also in Donald Trump’s way now as far as the outsider vote,” Johnson said. “Evangelicals like him because he’s a Christian gentleman. Outsiders like him because he’s anything but political.”
Bruce Heilman, a retired nurse, Navy veteran and grandfather, is not a regular churchgoer or heavily faith-based. But after hearing Carson push back on President Obama’s health care policies in the spring of 2013, Heilman began following the rise of the neurosurgeon’s conservative stardom and career story. He now volunteers for both the super PAC and campaign.
“I have respect for everyone, every presidential candidate, on both sides, but there’s only one person I admire--and that’s Dr. Carson,” Heilman said from his home in Urbandale, Iowa. “He thinks the citizens--and not just those that get elected but those that do the electing--need to run this country.”