At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, the nation’s largest gathering of conservatives, political outsider Dr. Ben Carson took the stage to formally suspended his 2016 presidential campaign.
And on the heels of the announcement, many supporters were left wondering — where did the money all go?
Critics say that when Carson ran for president, his consultants won.
The political newcomer raised $58 million, more money than any other GOP contender raised.
But a review of his campaign finance filings show Carson’s campaign is an extreme example of the big-money business of presidential politics. His campaign burned through the millions he raised by spending more on fundraising and consultants than on mass media advertising, on-the-ground employees and other things that could have swayed voters, the filings show.
Over the past week, the candidate himself, a soft-spoken retired Baltimore neurosurgeon, has wondered aloud whether his campaign aides took advantage of him, even saying he was disappointed in himself for trusting some people around him “without really vetting them carefully.”
Carson addressed the issue in an interview with CNN last week and again Thursday in a Yahoo News interview with journalist Katie Couric, who questioned Carson on whether his campaign had spent so much on fundraising to gather a list of donors for a future business venture.
“Mistakes were made,” Carson said. “We probably had the wrong team in place, people who probably had different objectives than I did. And once we discovered that and rectified it, the situation changed dramatically.”
Some people who worked with Carson’s presidential campaign are positioned to continue profiting from his elevated profile even after he officially ends his bid.
All told, the Carson campaign turned over at least one-quarter of the money it raised — $16 million — to fundraising and marketing firms owned by a pair of his top consultants, Mike Murray and Ken Dawson.
By contrast, the Carson campaign’s payroll for nine months cost less than $700,000, finance documents show, and the campaign spent less than $600,000 on television and radio advertising during the month that voting has taken place, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Murray has been a campaign senior adviser, owns TMA Direct and is managing partner of Precision Data Management, firms that provide fundraising services for direct mail and email to voters and broker lists of would-be supporters.
Dawson has been Carson’s unofficial chief marketing officer and owner of Eleventy Marketing. That company uses Facebook, Twitter and other social media to place digital advertising and raise money for its clients.
Murray and Dawson say the payments to their firms do not give a full picture of all the work they did — transforming a candidate with 50 percent name recognition among likely Republican voters into one who became nearly universally known.
“We had the task of building the Carson brand along with raising money,” Murray said. “Everything we did netted money.”
Payments to TMA and other firms did not all go into the consultants’ pockets, he said. Much of it paid for postage, printing and other costs associated with fundraising. Dawson also said much of the $10 million paid to his company went right back out to pay for digital advertising and social media promotion.
He said every payment to Eleventy was approved by Carson’s campaign managers and audited by campaign staff.
Carson has vowed to continue his “grassroots movement,” which includes his 700,000 campaign donors, the majority of whom gave $200 or less.
On Friday, Carson announced in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Maryland that he has accepted a position as national chairman of My Faith Votes, a nonpartisan group that encourages Christians to participate in the political process.
Before the campaign, Carson was the face of a health care project funded by the American Legacy Political Action Committee, a group that has substantial crossover with the Carson campaign; in fact, Murray is its founder. Armstrong Williams, Carson’s longtime confidant and off-the-books campaign guru, took over the American Legacy PAC chairmanship and has also said he encouraged Carson to come back to the group.
American Legacy PAC appears to do little more than raise money to pay people raising money.
The group’s mission is to help conservative candidates, but it reported giving less than 3 percent of the $10 million it raised in the past five years to candidates and political committees, FEC documents show.
Murray said the PAC’s impact on politics isn’t fully reflected in its FEC filings, in part because the group encourages donors to give directly to candidates. He said those candidates have netted “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” which the group has tracked through software.
The cost of all that fundraising is laid out in FEC documents.
American Legacy PAC has paid Williams’ production company more than $170,000 and Murray’s companies nearly $400,000 since its establishment in 2010. It also paid Dawson’s Eleventy about $30,000, which he said paid for building a website.
More than half of American Legacy PAC’s budget went to the telemarketing company Infocision. Carson’s campaign also paid the company almost $5 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this article