By Alex Altman and Michael Scherer
March 13, 2014

A star-spangled clown teetered on stilts, activists dressed as Star Wars storm troopers snapped selfies, and college kids slugged whiskey from an elephant-shaped ice sculpture. Such was the scene in early March when conservative activists went to a Washington suburb for an annual confab that is equal parts rally, trade show and frat party. Amid this clattering circus, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon greeting supporters in the corner of an exhibition hall made an unlikely star. But the crowd couldn’t get enough of Dr. Ben Carson.

His face was everywhere: stamped on room keys, plastered on the sides of buses and emblazoned on T-shirts. Giveaway buttons, bumper stickers and beer koozies flew off swag tables. Supporters lined up for a chance to shake the hand of the retired Maryland doctor who rose to fame by denouncing Democratic policies in front of President Obama at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast. “His heart is in the right place for our country. Not to line his pockets like the rest of Washington,” said Helaina Ciaramella, a retired teacher from Staten Island, N.Y., who forked over $200 to a group trying to enlist Carson to become a candidate in 2016.

The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, which paid for the paraphernalia and drummed up the frenzy, is an unlikely juggernaut. It has no headquarters, few paid staff members and no known affiliation with Carson, who shows little sign of wanting to become a candidate and even less chance of winning. Running for office, he told TIME, “has never been something that I have a desire to do.” None of this has prevented the group touting his merits from raking in $2.8 million from 47,000 donors during its first six months.

The Carson boomlet is a tribute to the enduring power of direct marketing in a conservative movement that owes its existence to the technique. Ronald Reagan won the GOP nomination in 1980 partly on the strength of direct-mail donors. Since then, conservative prospectors have been reaching backers through the U.S. Postal Service, over the phone and online for causes ranging from a return to the gold standard to securing the Mexican border. These efforts have long pumped money and energy into the movement. But they have also spawned a band of consultants who tap veins of voter outrage to raise money for fringe candidates and causes, sometimes with few tangible results.

As often as not, profits are a part of the package. In the Obama era, lucrative outfits have sprung up to spread the falsehood that the President was born on foreign soil, seek his impeachment and investigate the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Winning doesn’t always matter; in fact, a campaign that has no measurable impact on elections or public opinion can be as remunerative as one that does. Activists make their appeals, collect the checks and move on. “It’s sort of like The Producers,” says the conservative talk-radio host Michael Medved. “The whole idea is if we close quickly, no one will bother to try to figure out what we did with all the money.” In many cases, more than 70% of the proceeds goes to fundraising expenses.

The campaign to draft Carson, which is blanketing the country with fundraising appeals, certainly is reminiscent of a Mel Brooks movie; the GOP has never picked a presidential nominee without military or government experience. Even some other conservatives find the campaign a distraction. In a recent column, Medved called on his listeners to steer clear of the group. “People have figured out a way to earn money with irresponsible appeals,” Medved says. “It’s not like this achieves anything for your favorite cause. I think about grandmothers who send $25 of their Social Security money.”

Erick Erickson, the editor of conservative news hub RedState.com, complains that activists on the right are drowning in solicitations. “These people, nine times out of 10, are building an email list that they’re going to resell and rent to candidates to make money,” he says. “You’re keeping your base in perpetual-outrage mode, thinking they’re doing something legit, when really all you’re doing is helping campaigns build new ways to spam you.”

The wizards of direct marketing, who are hardly strangers to criticism within their own party, are unbothered by this talk. For decades, they say, the right has used direct mail to trumpet causes the media ignored, build communities and connect voters with new ideas and candidates. The medium is often the message. “Direct mail educates people. It activates your supporters,” says Richard Viguerie, 80, one of the founding fathers of the strategy. “And unlike if you spend money on advertising, the recipients of your mail pay.”

A Proven Model

The draft-Carson movement began last year when John Philip Sousa IV, the great-grandson of the composer, called Bruce Eberle, one of the old lions of conservative direct mail. Sousa had enlisted Eberle, who ran fundraising for Reagan’s 1976 campaign, to raise money for the 2012 re-election of Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Of the $2.8 million that effort hauled in, according to documents filed with the county recorder’s office, more than $1 million was billed by companies based at Eberle’s headquarters in a McLean, Va., office park. Now Sousa proposed that they join forces again.

To gauge enthusiasm for Carson, Eberle sent out a free fundraising solicitation on Aug. 16. Six days later, the donations began pouring in. The response made it the second best test in Eberle’s history, says Vernon Robinson, the committee’s director and a former Eberle client. The trickle of small checks became a flood, funding ever more appeals for money. In 2013, the group raised $1.2 million, according to public filings tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. About $920,000 of that sum went to paying for the fundraising appeals themselves, mostly through direct mail and email list rentals from firms tied to Eberle. “The only way it can exist is the leverage of direct mail,” Robinson says. “This is a legitimate grassroots effort.”

The kings of direct marketing have honed the formula to a science. Google the words impeach Obama and the top result will be the website of a nonprofit group called the Policy Issues Institute. In exchange for a steady stream of updates cataloging Obama’s alleged misdeeds, the site asks for a small contribution. Sustained by this simple proposition, the group raised a combined total of about $13 million in 2011 and 2012. About 20% was reinvested in fundraising efforts; most of the rest was spent distributing tips about Obama online and through the mail, according to tax filings. The group’s organizers, Floyd Brown and Jim Lacy, each declared individual part-time salaries that averaged more than $250,000, though Brown says that money was later divided with several other staff.

Brown describes the mission of his group as having nothing to do with making money. “We have been able to show information about Barack Obama to people who were hungry for it,” he explains. “You don’t get into this business to be rich. We do it because we want the world to be a better place.”

Despite its reach, the direct-marketing industry is controlled on the right by a relatively small number of fundraisers, many of whom have been active for decades. In California, Sal Russo, another former Reagan staffer, harnessed the rise of the Tea Party to reposition his consultancy as a clearinghouse for anti-Obama fervor. The model “works better when you’re out of power,” notes Russo, who cut his first political ad in 1969.

In 2009, the firm’s political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better, set up the Tea Party Express bus tour, which crisscrossed the nation staging antigovernment rallies. (An early draft proposal for the group noted cautiously that the organizers were “not part of the Tea Party establishment.”) As the movement’s focus shifted from protests to political campaigns, Russo launched the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, which was then reconstituted as the Conservative Campaign Committee after Obama was re-elected. All of these groups paid significant sums to their organizers. “What we do is get conservative activists excited,” says Russo. “The cost to get people involved and engaged is a lot more.”

For longtime conservative activists like Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, the issue for the movement is one of quality control. Norquist sifts through his parents’ political solicitations, separating the groups doing good work from those making money by shipping meaningless petitions to Capitol Hill. “I think people should have metrics,” he says. “If someone tells you, ‘Give us money to impeach Obama,’ you better have written out how they intend to do it.”

The Coin of the Realm

Waiting to take the stage at the conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Carson sank into a leather club chair in the carpeted green room, eating a vegetarian wrap. A cameraman filming a Carson documentary hovered nearby. The former brain surgeon, 62, became famous for successfully separating the heads of conjoined twins by lowering their body temperatures to control bleeding. Lately he has embraced the opportunities associated with folk-hero status on the right. “He happens to be one of the hot items right now,” says Christopher Ruddy, a direct-marketing guru who is CEO of the conservative website Newsmax.

Since retiring from medicine last year, Carson has a new role as a Fox News contributor, a book coming out in May and a new gig as the spokesman for a group called American Legacy PAC. The group is fighting Obamacare–which Carson once called “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”–by collecting signatures and distributing information. “We’re going to be petitioning the Congress,” he tells TIME, “and we need a lot of names behind us in order to do that.”

In the direct-marketing world, email addresses collected through this sort of petition system are the coin of the realm. They are packaged as lists, which can be resold and rented to new candidates or causes. When fundraisers find a formula that works, they scramble to replicate it. In addition to issuing appeals based on immigration and military causes, the Eberle organization has developed something of a specialty in marketing black conservatives. It raised money for the presidential campaigns of Alan Keyes and Herman Cain, both of whom spun their losing bids into lucrative email lists. “A black candidate has an advantage in raising money from direct-mail donors,” says Jim Newberry, a senior Eberle copywriter. “There’s nothing they love more than a black candidate who agrees with them on conservative views.”

Since August, Eberle has sent out more than 2 million mail pieces on Carson’s behalf. “Everything’s working,” says Tammy Cali, the president of Eberle Associates, who bristles at the criticism of the industry’s fundraising costs. “Anybody that’s familiar with the direct-mail business knows it’s not a scam.”

When it was time to speak at CPAC, Carson bounded onstage as fans in the ballroom unfurled collapsible banners reading run, ben, run. For 18 minutes, he captivated the crowd, taking care to slip in mentions of his American Legacy signature drive. Hours later he would come in third in the conference’s 2016 presidential straw poll, sandwiched between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie–a huge if entirely symbolic win for the draft-Carson forces. Asked if all the attention might lead him to change his mind about running for President, Carson had the pitch-perfect response. “I would be un-American,” he said, “not to listen.”

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.

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