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Why Ben Carson is burning through so much campaign cash

CPAC 2015CPAC 2015
Dr. Ben CarsonPhotograph by Bill Clark — CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

Ben Carson is trailing Donald Trump by just a couple points in the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls of Republican primary voters nationally, and he’s leading the pack in another important metric—fundraising.

The retired neurosurgeon announced last week that his campaign had raked in $20.8 million in donations in the third quarter, the most of any Republican candidate. But Federal Election Commission filings also show that he spent $14.2 million during that same period, more than any Republican. Given his huge fundraising hauls so far, he still has the second most cash on hand of any of the Republican field, but given the fact that much of his support comes from small donations, it’s unclear whether these supporters can be tapped again and again like the wealthy and well-connected boosters of some of his rivals.

So what is Carson spending all this money on? You have to spend money to make money, and the Carson campaign’s biggest expense is fundraising itself. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

In all, Mr. Carson directed $11 million of the $14 million he spent in the third quarter to fundraising costs.

The campaign spent nearly $5 million—a quarter of its total haul—on social media, email marketing and online advertisements. Mr. Carson’s Facebook presence in particular has drawn attention for the size of his audience. Last month, he surpassed GOP front-runner Donald Trump to become the candidate with the most fans on Facebook.

He spent $2.6 million on direct mail, $1.4 million on telemarketing and another $57,000 on the campaign website.

There’s also the matter of what Politico has called Carson’s “appetite for the good life.” It points out that he has spent thousands of dollars on swanky hotels and steak dinners, helping to contribute to a “burn rate” that is among the highest in the Republican field. But in the end, Carson’s burn rate is largely on account of his fundraising methods. Appealing directly to supporters through email, snail mail, and Facebook campaigns is simply much more expensive than the sort of $10,000-per-plate events that has helped Jeb Bush amass his sizable war chest.

Ben Carson’s fundraising style is like a low-margin business. It may be easy for him to stay solvent using this strategy, but high-margin campaigners that get the attention of well-connected bundlers or a billionaire or two are simply won’t need to work as hard to raise the same amounts and will have more cash lying around come crunch time.