Tucked in the slew of campaign mail shipped to voters hours before the Iowa caucuses, some voters will find a postcard that reads in red block-letters: “Polls Change, Integrity Doesn’t.” Underneath, a picture of a smiling Dr. Ben Carson, with more words: “Carson for President.”
While the postcards aren’t from the official campaign, they reflect the message from Carson's team in the final days before the caucuses — a milestone that will determine whether or not these are the final days of an improbable campaign.
"We need to finish top four,” Carson’s Iowa state director Ryan Rhodes said to NBC News this week when asked how well Carson needs to do on Monday. “I think we’re going to be in the top three, but I think it’s necessary to be in the top four.”
The latest Real Clear Politics polling average has Carson in fourth place in Iowa — a position he’s held in most polls conducted since the start of December. However, the forth spot is a steep fall from where the candidate was in October, when he jumped to first place in the state and nationally.
“I suspect the day after the Iowa caucuses, there will be some very surprised commentators,” Carson told reporters after an event Tuesday.
Conversations with many in the pro-Carson force show they are convinced their ground operations — taken as a whole — will deliver the surprise to which Carson alluded.
“Win, Ben, Win”
“Do I think we’ll win it? Probably not,” John Philip Souza IV, the chairman of the pro-Carson super PAC Win Ben Win, told NBC News. The group, also known formally as "The 2016 Committee," is the successor of the successful draft movement Run Ben Run. Souza continued, "But do I think we have a hell of a shot at second or third? Yes!
"And I mean, maybe we will win it,” he quickly added.
The group has been on the ground in Iowa since April 2014 and recently began its in Get Out the Vote operation in an effort to secure success.
Last week, with just days to go before the caucus, it purchased $50,000 in online advertising. Armed with a 40-person full-time staff in the state, a “couple hundred” volunteers, and a digital system that allows supporters to make calls from their home nationally, Win Ben Win said they are working around the clock to pull off the upset.
"We’re making phone calls, we’re doing the letter writing program, we’re doing the door-knocking — we’re just doing at lot of the last minute push,” the group’s Iowa coordinator Tina Goff said as she was wrapping up a push that delivered to Iowans more than 10,000 handwritten pro-Carson letters from people across America.
“If we get a second and or third in Iowa, a one, two, or three in South Carolina, that gives us huge momentum moving into Nevada,” Souza said. Win Ben Win has an operation in Nevada and Souza says he recently started robocalls in the state to identify support.
The Carson campaign says it has one of the top three turnout machine in the state, a notion that will be tested Feb. 1. "I think when it comes to organization,” Rhodes said, “there is a first tier, second tier, and third tier in turnout machines, and I think we are in the first tier.”
He continued, “We are hitting doors that nobody else seems to be hitting. I believe that we have the people who want to vote for Carson. Our job is simply targeting those people who are specifically Carson voters and turning them out.”
Among those in the campaign, there is a general acceptance — though a lingering hopefulness — that Carson won’t regain the first-place position that was lost amid a series of admitted blunders, harsh scrutiny of his personal background, and doubts about his foreign policy acumen.
Ahead of the caucus, Iowa’s popular Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst are introducing Carson at two separate Friday events. Campaign aides believe the legislators appearing on stage with Carson can help increase their candidate’s perceived legitimacy, which could build momentum as he works to close the deal with undecided voters.
There have also been noticeable shifts since the departure of his top aides. There’s been an aggressive, and admittedly belated, rollout of policy proposals. Four, including cyber security, taxes, education and terrorism, were released in the past three weeks. Friends, aides, and Carson himself note an increased energy level from the candidate — with some saying he physically appears to be happier with his new staff.
The Closing Argument
"America is safe in Ben Carson’s hands." That’s not only the title of one of the four ads released by the campaign this month, it is a summary of the campaign’s final message to voters.
"Courage, inner strength and belief in God allows him to look death in the eye and not blink,” a soothing female voice reads over video of children and babies. “Thousands have trusted their children's lives to Ben Carson. We can, trust him too,” one of his newest television ads argues.
Then, opening Thursday night’s debate, the final one before the caucus, Carson declared, “I’ve had more 2 a.m. phone calls than everybody here put together— making life or death decisions, put together very complex teams to accomplish things that have never been done before. And we are in a situation right now in our country that we have never been in before."
After Paris and the attack in San Bernardino, the former pediatric neurosurgeon's closing message of safety is an attempt to sell a deficit in political experience as the quality that makes him strong. His campaign is closing with the argument that his strength is based on what galvanizes and energizes his core supporters: A record of personal and professional accomplishment and a deep faith in God.
It’s what voters still ask about at his town halls, it’s what drove people to wait hours outside of book stores for three-second interactions with him at his height of popularity, and it’s what led Tina Goff, Rick Santorum’s 2012 central Iowa director, to build an outside operation for Carson more than a year before he even announced his candidacy.
“Our main goal is just to do as well as we can and to get as many of our supporters, and the undecided out to vote, for Dr. Carson,” Goff said, recalling Santorum’s expected victory four years ago. “We just do anything we can do, and then we give it to the voters and to God on caucus day."