Ben Carson rides unconventional campaign to the top of the polls

Updated

Dr. Ben Carson did the seemingly un-doable on Tuesday: He unseated Donald Trump from the top slot of a national poll. And he did it while on a break from campaigning to promote a book. 

The election’s most unlikely candidate—a retired pediatric neurosurgeon who emerged on the national stage just two years ago with a speech at a National Prayer Breakfast that went viral—is also running a campaign that’s not afraid to break convention. 

“I’m not a politician, I’m never going to be a politician, so why would I use their playbook?” Carson told MSNBC at a Barnes & Noble in Waco, Texas. He was there signing books on a publisher-funded tour promoting his latest, “A More Perfect Union,” a book that recounts his thinking on his various policy views. Carson is taking a break from his campaign for two weeks while the tour is in progress, though he’s squeezing in a handful of campaign events on the side.

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Tuesday’s polling high, which follows several Iowa surveys that also show Carson leading, comes after months of a quiet climb up the polling ranks, boosted by soft-spoken debate performances. Carson’s fundraising shows similar strength: this summer, he raised more money than any other Republican running. The $20.77 million haul came largely from small donors, with an average donation of just $51.

By law, super PACs are barred from coordinating with campaigns, and the campaign can’t spend money to promote Carson’s book. But at book tour stops across Texas last week, the line between politics and business was blurred.

“It’s as much of a campaign as it is a book tour,” one fan, Leslie Healy told MSNBC while waiting in line for Carson to sign a copy of the book she’d purchased specially to attend the signing at a Costco in Austin. Healy and others at the event identified themselves as campaign volunteers, when in fact they appear to be volunteers for the super PAC supporting Carson, the 2016 Committee, which was out in force at book tour stops across the state.

Super PAC volunteers rallied fans behind Carson’s campaign and distributed materials advertising Carson’s stance on the issues from an RV emblazoned with the candidate’s face. They canvassed hours-long lines gathering signatures and many seemed unaware of the law separating the campaign from the super PAC, or even which group they were volunteering for.

In Waco, a fan told MSNBC he gave the candidate a $500 campaign donation during a signing. Asked about how he was straddling the line between politics and business, Carson said he doesn’t open the items fans give him at campaigns.

Carson is hardly the only Republican candidate to rely on a supportive super PAC for much of the work that used to be done by a campaign. Right to Rise, a super PAC backing Jeb Bush, looks set to provide much of his Iowa field operation. But while many super PACs are run by former advisers to the campaigns and other political pros, Carson’s was launched by genuine fans.

Indeed, the 2016 Committee – which is also known as Run, Ben, Run – helped draft Carson to run for office, operating as the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee and launching shortly after the now-famous Prayer Breakfast speech.

“Run, Ben, Run is about as independent as they get,” Carson campaign Communications Director Doug Watts told MSNBC. Later that week, the 2016 Campaign merged with a super PAC launched by a former Carson aide, which may bring a bit of the campaign’s blessing to the operation.

But Carson seemed to acknowledge that the book tour—with the opportunities it offers to meet and greet fans and talk about his vision for the country—doesn’t exactly hurt his campaign. “This is a book signing, but virtually everything you do in a presidential campaign is construed as a campaign event,” he said at one stop.

RELATED: On Carson’s book tour, politics and business are blurred

Carson’s campaign says the super PAC does sometimes confuse supporters, but that it’s just a byproduct of his unusual, grassroots-driven candidacy. 

“It is confusing, but it is what happens with an organization that started a year and a half before we did,” Watts said of the super PAC that helped draft Carson.

Strategists seem to agree there’s a valuable synergy for Carson. “It gives him a break from having to answer all of these questions,” GOP strategist Susan Del Percio told MSNBC. “He still gets to have events and meet people but he’s doing it under his terms.”

Carson also has gotten away with controversial comments that might sink other candidates. Recently, he’s suggested that gun control helped lead to the Holocaust, has compared abortion to slavery, and has said Muslims aren’t qualified to be president. In response, Carson has blamed the media for misconstruing his words, and stressed that his views are complex and not intended to offend. 

The remarks don’t seem to have alienated his supporters.

“There’s something about him that when things like that are said, I guess I take it with a grain of salt,” one fan told NBC News recently.

When he flubs policy—which he’s done before on foreign policy and debt—Carson stresses that he’ll surround himself with experts who can best handle the issues and lead the team, not micromanage the issues. 

And Carson’s campaign argues they’re building their own grassroots network, noting that they have just as many campaign co-chairs as the super PAC in Iowa.

Watts said they’re not working on some traditional elements of campaigning, like trying to earn endorsements, while focusing on digital engagement instead.

“A lot of that is unseen from a the traditional point of view.  You can’t see funny hats on people online,” Watts added.

Carson is well-known for doing routine Facebook chats to his more than 4.3 million followers, a number that surged during the last debate much to the campaign’s delight.

“Ben Carson has a way of connecting to voters and his fundraising is very interesting,” Del Percio said. “How he’s raised it has also been a campaign tool. They use their fundraising tools as a means of voter contact.”

Carson’s not the only political outsider running a nontraditional campaign, either: Trump has focused heavily on media interviews, phoning in to show after show to build buzz. FEC filings show that despite his vow to self-fund heavily, he’s spent very little of his fortune, relying rather on donors’ money. Trump’s campaign manager said the campaign is “efficient organization with a business mind-set.” Carly Fiorina is also running a thrifty, bare-bones campaign while allowing her super PAC to take care of much of the ground game operation, event staffing, and advance work campaigns usually do. Fiorina herself has quickly dismissed the idea that her PAC is too involved.

For all three candidates, their appeal is based firmly in their outsider status.

“None of these folks you’ve mentioned have trained or been told or been handled for years, if not decades, on how to win political campaigns,” Del Percio added. “That in and of itself is working for them because people want an outsider.”

Ben Carson and Donald Trump

Ben Carson rides unconventional campaign to the top of the polls

Updated