The fact that it took Ben Carson a solid ten minutes or so into his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend to finally, finally, announce the end of his stubbed-toe-on-Ambien presidential campaign seemed like a proper coda for a White House run that went on far longer than it should have, and that made very little sense in the first place. So much so, in fact, that on Tuesday night, as the Republican race rolled on without its lobotomized neurosurgeon, Stephen Colbert dedicated an entire segment of The Late Show to the whole affair, putting Carson back in online trends, likely for the last time.
The short-lived Carson boom of 2016 is now long forgotten—a bizarre footnote in what has been the most bizarre presidential election in modern history. To refresh your memory, Carson enjoyed a brief stint at the top of the polls at the end of the summer, an unlikely outsider in an outsider's election, one who's conservative celebrity was based mostly on the fact that he once attacked Obamacare in front of Barack Obama himself. But the former pediatric neurosurgeon slipped back quickly, overtaken first by Trump, and then by his own lunacy and that of his perpetually rotating campaign staff.
But while Carson's campaign had been over for weeks by the time he formally exited the race, his speech at CPAC had a certain symmetry to it, making his rambling exit in the same sterile Potomac ballroom where, just a few years earlier, he'd gotten his first taste of political success, taking the stage with people chanting, "Run, Ben, Run!"
Seated in the spillover room at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center last Friday, I was, for the first time this election cycle, desperate to hear the Good Doctor speak—partly because his appearance would end the Ted Cruz Comedy Hour dragging along on the main stage, but mostly because it was my last, best chance to see Carson in his political habitat, surrounded by the strange cross-section of starry-eyed conservatives who wanted this guy to be president.
David Stevenson, 66, a propane businessman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was so dedicated to Carson and his super PACS, he told me, he logged over 10,000 miles driving a tour bus for the campaign. Still decked out in campaign swag, he joked that Carson's decision to drop out would save him $50 a month.
"I wanted [Carson] to challenge the Christian community to be more assertive. That's what he should have done early on," Stevenson told me, turning serious. "Then he could've appealed to his base, and the fact remains we both believe in Jesus Christ as our personal savior. He should've addressed it, made it clear, and challenged them like a preacher: 'Next time you go in that voting booth vote like a Christian. Don't vote for abortion or gay rights or this other stuff.'"
In an election marred by mudslinging and schoolyard taunting, Carson's campaign was based on the perception that he was a "good, honest man," someone whose faith and work ethic could override a total lack of experience or substance. But while Carson's bootstraps conservatism and messianic gibberish galvanized evangelical voters for a while, Republicans weren't really looking for good and honest this election cycle.
"I'm still with Ben in spirit—I think he's a man of integrity, responsibility," said Jacklyn Tran, a 40-year-old Jamaica native who had come down from Connecticut to volunteer at CPAC's grassroots training sessions. "Unfortunately, for me, I don't see anyone else in the race right now who has that standard of character. I've never seen an America like this before. I honestly can't see any of the candidates pulling us out of it."
Tran attributed her candidate's poor primary performances to problems with Carson's staff members, specifically their lack of experience running a national campaign. "There was a lot of management issues from his team," Tran said. "The media played on that weakness, and the combo of the two turned a lot of Carson supporters away from voting for him." She added, "one guy, on Super Tuesday, told me 'I donated to Carson this morning, but I voted for Cruz.'"
David Stevenson, who claims to have driven Ben Carson's 2016 campaign bus 10,000 miles this election cycle, holds out until the bitter end. Photo by author
As Carson himself joked from the CPAC stage: "People like me, they just don't vote for me." It was an objectively accurate assessment, highlighting a key distinction that's become harder to make in a GOP primary that's been defined by forceful personality and a committed lack of policy substance. But there's no better place to find out where conservatives draw that line than their annual jamboree in the sterile gulag known as National Harbor, Maryland.
I figured that the roaming platoons of College Republicans—"millennials" as most of them referred to themselves frequently—crowding into endless "activist bootcamps" and happy hours around the Gaylord might be able to help me understand Carson's appeal. Or at least they might have some interesting ideas on what the fruit-salad mind reader could have done differently.
"I think he has a lot of beliefs and stances I agree with," Leah Van Eerdan, a 23-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina, explained to me as we crowded into a dueling pianos bar for one of the weekend's cocktail events. "But as a young millennial, when I look at him and his opponents, I don't think he has the fire and aggressiveness. That's why he didn't have my support in the end."
Van Eerdan told me she's supporting Florida Senator Marco Rubio, before adding: "I agree with Trump on his hard stance on immigration. If Carson was on Trump's ticket, I'd be much more inclined to vote Trump."
Andrew Britt, a 25-year-old three-time CPAC attendee from upstate New York, echoed the sentiment. "The campaign was full of ideas, but lacked energy," Britt told me. "He had an organization that had a message, and he just couldn't spread it." As a candidate, he added sagely, Carson "broke the cookie cutter politician mold. He just never broke out. I think that's the biggest problem."
Wringing out the meaning from this boozy sludge of campaign-speak, I gathered that while these future Republican leaders found Carson appealing, and may have even admired him enough to click over a couple of bucks to his campaign, his soft-spoken brand of crazy just wasn't enough for them in 2016.
Conservative activists dance with a cardboard cutout of Ben Carson at CPAC. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
"As conservatives, we're both blessed and cursed with a love of facts and logic," Alexandra Smith, of the College Republican National Committee, told a room of twenty-somethings in khakis, kicking off a panel on "Reaching the Female Youth Vote." The war on women, Smith informed her charges, was "invented" by liberals to beat back Republican gains in Congress and at the state level.
"As you resist the urge to fight the war on women, remember this is not a substantive fight," Smith declared. "It's a political game played by the left meant to trip up GOP candidates and get them to say something they don't mean." As she spoke, an image of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, labeled "America's Sweetheart," appeared in a slide, prompting whooping giggles and hee-haws all around the room.
"It has to be fun," Jade Larson, a 19-year-old from South Dakota, explained to me later. Carson, she said, "could've been a lot more verbal. I do think he should have gone after people on different issues."
Trump, on the other hand, is "entertaining," Larson said. "He has the personality of a high school millennial." She added, as if to explain, "he gets in your face, says what he wants to."
Follow Dan McCarthy on Twitter.