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Ben Carson Is Still Running for President, Although It's Getting Harder to Tell Why

The soft-spoken doctor is in last place and running out of money, but Carson continues to run on faith in South Carolina.

by Olivia Becker
Feb 18 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA

Almost immediately after Dr. Ben Carson briefly surged to the top of the Republican primary race last fall, the trouble with his campaign began. First, there was a series of embarrassing blunders that belied a lack of basic knowledge of foreign policy (and US geography). Then his campaign went through a very public meltdown in which many of his top-tier advisors left and in January one of his staffers died in a tragic car accident in Iowa. Finally, on the night of the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign circulated a rumor that Carson was pulling out of the race and urged voters to abandon him and vote for Cruz instead.

Carson ended up coming in fourth place in Iowa and eighth in New Hampshire with less than three percent of the vote. With only two days to go until the South Carolina primary, the retired neurosurgeon is now in dead last in many polls, with an average of about 6 percent. Statistical forecasting website FiveThirtyEight puts his chances of winning South Carolina at less than one percent.

None of this, however, seems to faze the determined neurosurgeon in the slightest. After speaking to voters at a Baptist church in South Carolina last night, Carson told reporters that everything is going just fine. Better than fine, actually.

"I'm seeing a tremendous response wherever we go," he said. "People are telling me 'don't believe the polls, it's going to be very different on election day!' so we'll wait and see."

Carson sounded a bit like he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince the dozen or so journalists in front of him. It was difficult to find a single person who said they were planning on voting for Carson at the event Wednesday night, which was sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a national Christian organization.

Dr. Ben Carson speaks to voters at a Baptist church in South Carolina Wednesday evening. Photo by Olivia Becker/VICE News.

Many of the people there were evangelical Christians, which is the closest thing to a voter base that Carson is still holding onto. But Cruz, who is polling in second place in South Carolina, has built up strong support among these same voters and successfully swept most of them away from Carson in Iowa. The Texas senator, who spoke after Carson at the forum Wednesday night, seemed to be doing the same thing here in South Carolina.

"Both [Cruz and Carson] were great," said a woman named Karen Garey after the event last night, before adding, "Ted Cruz was the best."

After VICE News pointed out that she was wearing a Ben Carson sticker, Garey laughed and said: "Yeah, but I think I'm changing my mind."

Many others at the church were also on the fence between the two evangelical candidates, but left leaning toward Cruz.

"I have all the faith in the world in Ben Carson," one voter named Jonathan said after the event. "But I think that to be able to reach across the aisle, that we're gonna need someone who's already been through the process in Washington." Jonathan said he will probably vote for Cruz.

Gov. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, who performed better than Carson in New Hampshire, have already dropped out of the presidential race, unsure that they had the support to continue. But Carson doesn't seem to have gotten the same memo.

Carson said Wednesday that he is determined to stay in the race through the Nevada caucuses on February 23 and beyond, even if he fails to perform well in South Carolina this Saturday.

"Politics is like the American pastime, baseball," Carson told VICE News after the event on Wednesday. "It's a nine-inning game. It's foolish to call it after the second or third inning."

"As long as I continue to have millions of people supporting me and them supplying the monetary means to carry on, we'll carry on," he added.

Carson was able to raise an impressive sum of money early on in his campaign, largely from many small-dollar donations and support from several super PACs. But after starting with almost $34 million October, the campaign only has $6.5 million in cash left, according to its most recent filings. Cruz, in comparison, had slightly less than $14 million in October and now has almost $19 million in his account.

Carson seems to be determined to burn through the rest of his money in South Carolina targeting evangelical and black voters. Both his campaign and an allied super PAC are running radio ads in the state touting the soft-spoken candidate as the polite alternative to the fiery candidates currently dominating the race.

"You don't have to be the loudest to be the most effective," a narrator says in a radio ad from Black America's Political Action Committee, which is supporting Carson. "Strong and steady Ben Carson can get our country back on track."

What really matters at this stage of the election is a campaign's ability to get out the vote, which requires a strong organization on the ground and an army of volunteers. Carson has not displayed much, if any, of a ground game in the early primary states. This was made all the more clear at the event Wednesday night, where one member of his campaign and one volunteer for his super PAC were passing out lawn signs and bumper stickers outside of the church entrance. In the course of about 20 minutes, only one person wandered up to their table.

This was a stark comparison to the Cruz campaign, who had set up a table on the other side of the entrance from Carson's. More than a dozen eager Cruz volunteers were staked out at the doors, signing people up to volunteer and selling Cruz's book as they walked out.

Yet despite his poll numbers, dwindling funds, and lack of a strong ground game, Carson continues to plug along in the final days before South Carolina's primary on Saturday, fueled by something that can only be described as pure faith. He held three campaign events in the state on Wednesday and will have at least two more before Saturday.

Mark Wall, Carson's director for evangelical outreach in South Carolina, echoed the same faith in the campaign while standing outside of the church on Wednesday. He compared it to the Old Testament story of Moses parting the seas in the Bible.

"If God can do that, he can do anything," Wall said. "Especially with the campaign."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928

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