An early stop in Kansas by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson might be surprising to some, but political experts and party leaders said his visit makes perfect sense.
In a New York Times/CBS News poll published Tuesday morning, Carson showed a significant gain on GOP front-runner Donald Trump with 23 percent of Republican voters favoring him to Trump’s 27 percent.
A Rasmussen Reports telephone poll following Wednesday’s CNN debate showed that 59 percent of those asked think Carson is likely to win the Republican nomination. Just 25 percent thought he was a likely nominee when he announced his candidacy in May.
Carson stopped in Topeka at the Great Overland Station on Thursday evening for a private fundraiser. If he is looking ahead to early campaign stops like New Hampshire or Iowa, a stop in Kansas makes sense to continue that climb in the polls, said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University.
“A conservative, underdog, outsider does well here,” he said.
Beatty pointed to past elections when relatively unknown candidates like Rick Santorum in 2012 or Mike Huckabee in 2008 led early polls in Kansas. Carson, who has no political experience, wants to pick up votes in states like Kansas that hold caucuses, he said. Historically, candidates not considered part of the political establishment do better in states with party caucuses than in states that hold primaries.
Carson’s surge in the polls might stem from a dissatisfaction with the status quo, said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.
“I think there is great frustration with the federal government and people are seeking a transformational leader — a competent outsider,” Barker wrote in an email. “In a sense it is similar to what many Democrats saw in Obama in 2008.”
Regardless of his status as an outsider, Carson has preferred small campaign stops like book signings instead of large rallies, Beatty said. He saw Carson speak in a packed room at a stop in Corning, Iowa, a town of about 1,500, in late June.
“He’s kind of like the Grateful Dead — he’s not known by a lot of people, but he has these pockets of strong followers,” Beatty said. “He can come to a place like Topeka and draw relatively large crowds.”
In a private interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal, Carson he prefers to use social media to reach large audiences so he can focus on traveling to nontraditional locations.
Events like the one in Topeka give candidates an opportunity to personally solicit for what all campaigns need — money, Barker said. The event at the Great Overland station cost $500 per person or $750 per couple. Those who wanted to spend $2,700 could attend a private dinner.
More importantly, Barker said, Carson may be looking at forming his Kansas campaign team ahead of the March Republican caucus. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the first and so far only Republican presidential candidate to file for the caucus, which requires a $15,000 filing fee, but Carson may follow.
“Personal visits also help gather contact information from which to form campaign teams,” Barker said.
Carson’s early visit might prompt other candidates to make a Kansas stop. More than a dozen states will hold party elections on March 1, Super Tuesday, but the Kansas presidential caucus for Republicans is March 5.
Beatty expects any candidate who makes it out of the Super Tuesday elections to have an eye on Kansas, which can send 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention in July. Barker agreed.
“We hope we are early enough that candidates coming out of Super Tuesday will want to do well in Kansas to show momentum,” Barker said.