As it has for months, Ben Carson's campaign is raising a lot of money. The Republican presidential candidate raised $23 million in the last quarter of 2015 -- ahead of red-hot Ted Cruz and, likely, all other rivals in the Republican field.
At the same time, Carson is plunging in the polls. On Nov. 5, he was in first place in the national GOP race, with 24.8 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Today he is in fourth place, with 9.3 percent.
In Iowa, on Nov. 1, Carson was in first place with 29.2 percent of the Real Clear Politics average. Today he is in fourth place with 9.6 percent.
In New Hampshire, on Nov. 14, Carson was in second place with 14.7 percent of the average. Today he is in seventh place with 5.5 percent.
Finally, in South Carolina (where there are fewer polls to count), Carson was in second place with 22.7 percent of the average on Dec. 3. Today he is in fourth place with 11.3 percent.
It's been common for a while now to refer to the Republican first tier as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Carson. But Carson is hanging on to the lowest rung of the top tier by his fingernails, and seems sure to fall soon.
Talk to people in Carsonland, and they'll concede some self-inflicted wounds. Whose idea was it to allow Duane Clarridge, Carson's foreign-policy tutor, to belittle the candidate's knowledge in an interview with the New York Times?
Who let Carson talk to the Washington Post's Sally Quinn on the subject of religion? In that interview, Carson said he does not believe in the Rapture, or in the reality of Hell. The campaign had some cleaning up to do with evangelicals after that one.
Beyond that, Carson's campaign recently underwent an open civil war, with campaign manager Barry Bennett resigning after a protracted conflict with longtime Carson friend and manager Armstrong Williams. Before Bennett left, the feud created an embarrassing scene in which Carson invited some reporters to his home without Bennett's knowledge, and told them he was going to shake up his campaign -- a clear signal he was going to sack Bennett. Then Carson semi-backtracked when it blew up in the press. A series of confusing "clarifications" followed until Bennett finally took off.
Now, Carson says he will run a sharper operation. "One thing I want to do is have a much more robust response to attacks, particularly when they are false," he told CBS recently. "We've kind of taken a nonchalant attitude toward that. I think it's the wrong thing to do. So you'll see much more aggressiveness in that region."
Carson's analysis should alarm anyone who cares about his campaign. It suggests that whichever warring faction has the candidate's ear at the moment is telling him the problem is messaging. That's what campaigns in trouble like to tell themselves.
A candidate who appears utterly unprepared for the policy challenges of a campaign, much less the White House? Failing campaigns prefer to blame things on a messaging problem, when in fact they almost always have a candidate problem. And so it is with Carson.
In questions about Carson's depth on both foreign and national policy issues, people in his circle consistently declare him to be one of the smartest people, if not the smartest, they've ever known. That, of course, misses the point. Everyone recognizes Carson's medical achievements. But there are lots of smart people who don't have the type of knowledge required for the presidency. Carson appears to be one of them.
Meanwhile, Team Carson firmly believes -- or says it firmly believes -- that he will win the Iowa caucuses. Like every other trailing campaign, they point to the fact that eventual caucus winner Rick Santorum was far behind at this date (and even much later) in the 2012 campaign. Santorum shot to the top to win, so why can't Carson?
The answer, in part, is because Santorum, a former senator fluent in national and foreign policy issues, was not a one-time leader who plunged in the polls.
Whatever Carson's difficulties, there's still all that money. The problem is, Carson appears to be spending even more than the prodigious amounts he is raising. Citing internal campaign documents, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Carson raised $8.8 million in October and spent $9.5 million. A huge amount of that money is being pushed back into more fundraising.
Any outsider's first reaction to such news would be: Somebody is getting rich off this. People in Carsonland deny it. But chances are, somebody is getting rich off this.
All the while, Carson's slide continues. If past campaigns are any guide, there will be a shakeup, followed by cutbacks, followed by a deeper dip in the polls. Despite his many admirable qualities, Ben Carson's extraordinary venture into presidential politics is not likely to end well.