“I’m not a politician,” Ben Carson said as he launched his bid for President of the United States. “I don’t want to be a politician.”
Carson’s campaign rollout was laced with such unconventional moments. There was the unusual announcement video. The gospel choir’s cover of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” The doctor’s grave diagnosis of the nation’s maladies. But the strangest part was the candidate’s declaration of disinterest. Candidates often profess ambivalence about seeking the presidency as a way to mask their ambition. It seems reasonable to take Carson at his word.
Running for office, Carson told TIME early last year, “has never been something that I have a desire to do.” In the months since, he’s been repeating this disclaimer to anyone who asks, even as he crept closer and closer to jumping in. “It continues to be something that I don’t want to do,” he told Newsmax last spring. Asked a few weeks back how he’d feel if his campaign failed, Carson told the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Actually, I would say ‘Whew!’, because it’s not something I ever really wanted to do, and the only reason I’d consider it is because there’s so many people across the nation clamoring for me to do it.”
The most striking thing about Carson’s candidacy is the sense that he is an accidental candidate, a man living out someone else’s fantasy. To understand why Carson would try to win a job he never wanted, it helps to trace his transformation from vaunted neurosurgeon to conservative folk hero. Carson became a grassroots icon after denouncing Democratic policies in front of President Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Here was a gifted black doctor with a remarkable personal story, who preached the conservative gospel of small-government and self-reliance with the fervor of a convert. Fundraising gurus saw green.
A few months after the prayer breakfast, John Philip Sousa IV—the great-grandson of the composer—asked the veteran GOP fundraiser Bruce Eberle to test Carson’s support among conservative donors. The first solicitation for Carson was sent out Aug. 16. It quickly became clear the group had a direct-mail superstar on their hands. During the 2014 cycle, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee netted more than $13.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—more than Ready for Hillary raked in from Clinton supporters. It paid out healthy sums to staffers in the process.
When asked, Carson said that it would be wrong not to listen when supporters clamored for his leadership. Though he had inspired a movement, it was never clear if Carson himself was prisoner or participant in the effort. “His life changed after that prayer breakfast. He sensed it immediately. But he was in denial,” explains Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager. “He had to know that this was what the American people wanted. . . . The seed had been planted. All he needed was for everyday people to water it.”
There was another hurdle. Candy Carson, the candidate’s wife, was opposed to a campaign, Williams says, and it was only during a trip to Israel last December that she heard the cries of supporters and finally got on board. “That was the epiphany,” Williams says. By February, Carson was all but in.
If he’s still wary of winning, his long-shot status should put him at ease. Carson is running a distant eighth in a competitive 2016 race, according to a recent RealClearPolitics average of early polls. The GOP has never picked a nominee with no governing or military experience. And Carson’s record of incendiary rhetoric could thwart the crossover appeal his supporters claim.
Every four years, a handful of people harness the spotlight of a presidential campaign to pursue goals unrelated to elected office. They want to goose book sales or a promote TV program or grab a Cabinet post. But Carson, Williams says, is running purely for love of country.
“He’s not running to sell books. He’s not running for notoriety, or to be someone’s vice president,” Williams says. “There’s no loss for him. No mater what the outcome is.”