Propelled by strong Tea Party support, Herman Cain has now surged to the top of the Republican leaderboard in the Republican race for the presidential nomination. The most recent Real Clear Politics composite poll has Cain tied with Mitt Romney, with each receiving about 23% of support in surveys. (Rick Perry has dropped back to third at about 12%). However, the virtual tie masks the fact that Romney, despite having “won” each of the Republican debates (if pundits are to be believed), appears to have maxed out at about 25% of the national vote, as measured by surveys of likely Republican voters. This is particularly worrisome because this is Romney’s second time on the dance floor with Republican voters; he also competed in the 2008 Republican race and was driven out early in that process. Meanwhile, it is not clear how hgh Cain’s upside is, but there’s no reason as yet to believe he has hit his ceiling.
Note that Cain’s ascendance has perplexed media pundits and alarmed the Republican establishment. The latter has sought in vain to create an aura of inevitability behind Romney’s candidacy, with leading party figures – most recently Chris Christie – lining up to endorse him, while issuing not so subtle knocks on Cain’s candidacy. The online political magazine Politico asked its leading pundits after last Tuesday’s Dartmouth debate whether Cain has staying power. In a remarkable show of conventional thinking at its worst the pundits almost universally dismissed Cain as a viable candidate, a sentiment captured by one wag who proclaimed: “I’m willing to bet that Herman Cain’s campaign reached its zenith just before last night’s debate and, after being hammered over his silly 999 plan, he has begun his slide toward also-ran..” Perhaps, but it should be noted that Rasmussen released a poll taken a day after the debate showing Cain in a dead heat with Romney – only the latest of several polls placing Cain either first or second in the race.
Indeed, if anything, the Dartmouth debate propelled Cain beyond novelty act to someone the media – reluctantly, I think – has to begin taking seriously. In today’s Meet the Press program, David Gregory could barely contain his incredulity that he was forced to devote a portion of the program to interviewing a former pizza CEO with no political experience. But despite Gregory’s best efforts to catch Cain in a verbal gaffe, or to make him adopt a politically untenable policy position, Cain more than held his own by parrying Gregory with a combination of candor, reasoned responses and humor.
What explains Cain’s appeal? Conventional wisdom suggests he is, as Sarah Palin put it, the flavor of the day – the latest candidate, following Michelle Bachmann and then Rick Perry, to get his day in the media spotlight based on initial Tea Party curiosity before inevitably falling back into the darkness of second-tier candidate oblivion. But this broadly-held opinion misses crucial distinctions between the three candidates. First, Cain’s strongest selling point for Tea Party activists is that, in contrast to Bachmann, he has no governing experience. While Bachmann presents herself as a lone voice in Washington fighting the good fight, Cain can trump that by reminding voters that he’s not part of Washington at all. Second, unlike Bachmann, Cain’s appeal deepens the more one is exposed to him because his candidacy is rooted in a substantive policy proposal – the oft-cited 9-9-9 plan (or, as Bachmann reminds us, 6-6-6 upside down!) that has begun attracting serious scrutiny. Bachmann’s initial rise, in contrast, was fueled largely with voter discontent with the political establishment, but not in any specific policy proposal on her part. She polled better for what she was against than for what she was for. The 9-9-9 plan, of course, is not without potential political vulnerabilities, most notably in Cain’s proposal to institute a national sales tax. But the discussion of its key elements keeps Cain front and center in the Republican race, while Bachmann has seen her polling support fade.
Whither Perry? Many pundits remain convinced that, despite his recent slide in the polls, this remains a two-person race between Perry and Romney for the Republican nominations. They do so in part because of Perry’s fund-raising prowess; his 3rd quarter fund-raising haul of $17 million topped every other Republican candidate, and he has spent less than Romney and is carrying little debt. Indeed, most leading pundits continue to insist that we should pay no attention to those polls that show Cain ahead. Thus, shortly after interviewing Cain, Gregory brought on Tim Pawlenty, who has endorsed Romney, and Bobbie Jindal, a Perry supporter, to debate the merits of their two candidates. Similarly, Chris Matthews began his talk show by asking whether Romney had the race sewn up, or could Perry catch him.
Despite the media’s assertions of a two-man race, however, many conservatives remain lukewarm toward Perry and Romney. Contrary to media’s reporting, the biggest obstacle to Perry’s candidacy is not that he’s a lethargic debater (although he is). It is that his record as Texas governor does not sit well with Tea Party conservatives who constitute a significant chunk of likely Republican voters. The reality is that in order to govern, Perry supported a number of policy positions that rankle die-hard conservatives, most notably the decision to offer in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants. Although the legislation had the support of all but four Texas legislators, and affected perhaps 16,000 students, it made Texas the first state to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants. For Tea Party activists, supporting illegal immigrants in this way is a cardinal sin right up there with tax hikes and increased government spending..
I have cautioned before that we are only entering the final phase of the “invisible primary”, a period in which historically nomination races are very fluid. How fluid? At this time in 1992, Mario Cuomo was trouncing the Democratic field, with about 30% in polls, while Bill Clinton was at about 5%. Clinton, of course, won the nomination. Although both Dole and Bush led their races in 1996 and 2000 respectively and went on to secure the Republican nominations, in 2004 Democrats were leaning toward Howard Dean, who had a slight lead over John Kerry, the eventual party standard bearer. And in 2008 at this time, the Republican frontrunners were Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, while among Democrats Hillary Clinton had a strong lead. (Thanks to Sarah Pfander and Owen Witek for digging up the relevant data.)
But this doesn’t mean these early debate, fund-raising and polling results don’t provide some clues to who will win the nomination. Bill Mayer has shown that, taken together, the national polls and fund-raising totals just before the Iowa caucuses do provide fairly reliable indications of who will win the popular vote in each party’s nominating process. (Of course, as we saw in 2008, the popular vote winner doesn’t always get the party’s nomination!) So we shouldn’t dismiss these results entirely. In contrast to most prognosticators, however, I am less bullish at this point regarding Romney’s prospects. Indeed, it would not surprise me to see the Republican race to come down to two men – but that these are Cain and Perry, with Romney once again finding that his support among Republican activists is tenuous at best. Much depends on how Cain weathers the media scrutiny that will inevitably accompany his newly acquired front-runner status. So far he has remained remarkably affable and poised when pressed to defend some of his most controversial statements.
There is also the racial issue, which I want to address in a separate post. But, in contrast to many pundits, I think that being a black American (Cain’s preferred description of himself) who espouses policy views anathema to many African-Americans is one of Cain’s strongest selling points among likely Republican voters, not least because many Democrats persist in believing opposition to Obama is racially motivated. On this issue, at least, it will be hard to question the motives of Cain’s supporters.
Can Cain use the next 10 weeks (or less) before the Iowa caucus/New Hampshire primary to solidify his status as front runner?
To hear Cain supporters, the answer is, “Yes, we Cain!” It’s still early, and history suggests the odds are against him, but at this point I’m not prepared to say “No, he Cain’t”.