Commentary

How And What Is Ben Carson Marketing?

Ed Brookover keynoted the opening session at the annual conference of the International Association of Political Consultants on Nov. 12. He has been the senior strategist to Dr. Benjamin Carson’s presidential campaign since March. Brookover is a campaign doyen, chairman of the political practice for the D.C. strategic communications firm Greener and Hook, with stints in executive posts at all three GOP national committees. Not a bad get for a first-time candidate running as an anti-politician. 

When Carson’s exploratory committee formed, Brookover told his audience of fellow professionals, the team made three key decisions: 1) put the building of a fundraising list as the top priority, with an emphasis on direct mail prospecting, 2) model social media operations on the Obama ’08 insurgency, 3) ignore the national media.

In two months, they raised $2.5 million and hired 20 people. From focus groups in Iowa, they learned that Carson’s fans loved his autobiography (required reading in many American schools), and that those unfamiliar with him cared more about patriotism than experience in considering presidential candidates this cycle. 

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Laborious word-smithing led Brookover, et al., from Obama’s “Hope and Change,” with its appeal “to the left and right side of the brain,” to the slogan, “Heal, Inspire, Revive.” Americans recognize those words from evangelical and populist traditions. Carson’s May 4 announcement speech, set in a Detroit theater, was preceded by a gospel group singing an Eminem song.

After the Aug. 6 GOP debate, Carson’s metrics took off: money, Facebook followers, and poll ratings. The campaign had planned to scale up staff for Labor Day, so the executive circle was basically ready when the breakthrough moment came a month ahead of schedule. Mainstream media could no longer be ignored, and they scheduled Carson on national shows to tell his story. 

In explaining Carson’s political rise, Brookover called attention to pragmatic and especially transcendental strains in his candidate’s music. These connect with voters this year, he thinks, because they now see the archetypal “Ugly American” resented by foreigners in their own political leadership. I’m not sure how one candidate can combine pragmatic policy positioning, transcendental value appeals, evangelical faith in second chances and constant miracles, populist loathing of elites (Carson’s “political correctness” devil), and a rags-to-riches biography, but thus far the motley philosophy seems to have worked. Brookover noted how the experience of performing 15,000 surgeries enables Carson to move along with focus and equanimity regardless of how the last event or statement has been received.

It will be fascinating and perhaps historic to see what happens to Carson’s unusual message blend as the Republican field narrows, the contest becomes more cutthroat, and candidates, not just the media, challenge the doctor’s policy chops. Carson will need to keep his legendary cool, a defining trait especially in contrast to Trump.

As Brookover spoke, he sounded like a man who has been profoundly touched by his time with his client. He has an eager reader in me for anything he writes about his experiences once it is over ... whenever that occurs.

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