Is Cain Able? (Previewing the New Hampshire debate)

Of winning the Republican nomination, that is.  Since his unexpectedly strong showing in the Florida straw poll a little more than two weeks ago, Cain has vaulted into the top tier of Republican candidates, along with Romney and Perry, as measured by national polling data.  Much of that support has come from Tea Party supporters who have been the most volatile voting bloc among likely Republican voters surveyed so far.  After initially embracing Bachmann after the Ames poll, they then danced with Perry and now are giving Cain a whirl. To his credit, he has taken advantage of the current media exposure to trumpet his “Main Street.” business credentials and lack of political experience – both selling points with the Tea Party activists.  This CBS poll is consistent with several recent polls showing that Cain’s growing poll support appears to have come at Rick Perry’s expense.

Despite Cain’s impressive biography, however, as I noted in an earlier post his current strong showing in the polls may say more about the media’s ability to influence perceptions of candidate viability in the absence of more concrete measures than it does about the depth and breadth of Cain’s support among likely Republican voters.  In this vein, consider the coverage of Saturday’s Values Voters Summit straw poll in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Family Research Council. In that straw poll, Ron Paul easily bested Cain, 37 % to 23%, but the media could barely muster a yawn.  In part, their disdain for the Values results reflects the fact that Paul’s supporters evidently mobilized en masse to boost his vote total. Rather than see this as a positive indication of the intensity of Paul’s supporters, however, the media chose instead to dismiss Paul’s victory as not really representative of Republican voters’ sentiments more generally. Of course, this type of strategic voting also took place in Florida’s straw poll, where many Romney supporters cast ballots for Cain (Romney wasn’t competing) in order to derail Rick Perry’s front-running campaign – a tactic the media largely fell for when reporting those results. In both straw polls, of course, barely 3,000 people participated, and they had to pay to play.

All this should be a reminder that we need to be cautious not to make too much of Cain’s recent surge to the top of the Republican leader board.  It likely says more about the tepid support for purported front-runner Mitt Romney, who with only a couple of exceptions has never polled higher than 25% in any national survey that I have seen, than it does about any deep-seated fervor for Cain.  My broader point – one I’ve made before – it that it is still too early to handicap the Republican race with any degree of confidence. Indeed, in most polls, “undecided” or “don’t know” continue to do very well.   Even in the critical primary state of New Hampshire, where the latest polls indicate that native son (at least in the summer!) Mitt Romney continues to lead the field with support in the mid-30% range, almost 70% of those surveyed indicate that their vote is still very much up for grabs.  Only 11 percent said they have definitely settled on a candidate.   With more than two months before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary (which will likely be held in the second week of January), this widespread uncertainty indicates there is still time for anti-Romney support to coalesce behind an alternative candidate.  Who might that be?  Coming off his recent surge nationally, Cain is running second in recent New Hampshire polls, but I suspect this overstates his support in the Granite state.  As an indicator of how fluid the New Hampshire race is, Rudy Giuliani, who has not even formally entered the race, nevertheless continues to run a strong third in many New Hampshire polls.

Giuliani’s support reminds us that independents can vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary and are likely to do so in high numbers, given that President Obama is not likely to face a Democratic primary challenge.  (One recent poll indicates that 57% of independents are planning to vote in the Republican primary.)  That potentially provides more fertile soil for libertarian Ron Paul and the more moderate Jon Huntsman, but will not likely help social conservatives like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Huntsman has practically staked his candidacy on a strong New Hampshire showing, but so far despite spending far more time there than any other candidate, he hasn’t cracked single digits in any poll.

All this makes tomorrow’s New Hampshire debate at Dartmouth College of particular interest.  While not a make-or-break moment for any single candidate, some have more at stake than do others.  In particular, Huntsman is looking to break into the top-tier with a strong debate performance, but he has a steep hill to climb because he’s competing for Romney voters.  Cain will undoubtedly be under greater scrutiny as he tries to build on media-generated momentum coming off his Florida “victory”.  But the individual with perhaps the most to gain is Rick Perry, whose stock fell in the wake of two tepid debate performances and sagging support among conservatives due to his policies toward immigration and education as Texas Governor, but who was running strong in New Hampshire prior to those performances.  Perry has just launched perhaps the slickest ad of the campaign so far, one aimed at New Hampshire voters and which targets Romney as a flip-flopper and a supporter of Massachusetts’ version of Obamacare.  A strong debate performance tomorrow may help him regain some of his luster among the media pundits.  Look for him to come out more energized tomorrow, and with a better defense of his immigration policies.

For the interested among you, I’ll be on Vermont Edition today at noon to discuss the Republican primary and to preview tomorrow’s New Hampshire debate.

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