Ben Carson has pulled into the lead nationally according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. He has jumped seven points in two weeks. He now leads in Iowa in a number of polls and more polling will soon show him leading nationally. But Carson has a problem beneath the polling numbers — his fundraising.
That’s pretty substantial. More problematic, Carson has built his fundraising engine on a direct mail program. Direct mail programs take a long time to become sustainable. Long term, Carson will be doing fine off direct mail. But in the short term, i.e. next year, Carson is going to have trouble.
What people do not realize about direct mail is that the costs are front loaded. Candidates spend a great deal of money building a mail file, harvesting a mail file, recycling a mail file, and harvesting again. The printing, postage, and commissions take a lot. In some cases, the candidates do not even have direct access to the mail file, which the mail house keeps until debts are paid.
To be sure, this is not money Carson has to work for. They keep churning letters and senior citizens keep writing checks. It is a win-win. But it also inflates what he has actually raised.
Carson’s actual expenditure list reads like a wealthy Republican getting played by consultants. It is, to be clear, something Carson can overcome. He has perhaps the most loyal grassroots of any campaign. His voters love him with real intensity and would bleed for him — I mean that literally. His supporters are some of the most dedicated I’ve seen and also really nice.
But I suspect there are some who see Carson as a cash cow. As Carson goes up in the polls, he is going to need to reassess his campaign. For a comparison, Carson’s burn rate right now is roughly $0.69 of every dollar. Bernie Sanders, who also had a shockingly high haul in the third quarter, has a burn rate of just $0.04 per dollar — yes, four cents.
Carson is building grassroots loyalty while prospecting for new votes. But as we get closer and closer to Iowa, he needs to make sure he can cut his burn rate on building a house file and actually burn a path to the nomination.