Was Herman Cain’s victory in the Florida straw vote last Saturday a game changer in the race for the Republican nomination? Will he be the Republican’s “next big thing?” Those are the questions pundits are asking after Cain saw his standings in the polls jump after his unexpected trouncing of Rick Perry a week ago. According to the latest Fox News poll of Republican voters, Cain has 17% support, putting him just 2% behind second-place finisher Rick Perry (well within the poll’s margin of error) and 7% behind the poll’s front-runner Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a Zogby poll released three days ago, but which was in the field before the Florida straw poll, has Cain at the front of the Republican pack, with 28%, a 10% lead over the second-place finisher Rick Perry, and 11% ahead of Mitt Romney. That’s more than double the support Cain received in the last Zogby poll from two weeks ago.
The boost in Cain’s polling, combined with his straw poll victory, has produced a mini-boomlet in his media exposure. And, to Cain’s credit, his biography is pretty impressive, a point made by this Wall Street Journal article by Dan Henninger which openly touts Cain’s private sector record (better than Romney’s!) Henninger writes, “Put it this way: The GOP nominee is running against the incumbent president. Unlike the incumbent, Herman Cain has at least twice identified the causes of a large failing enterprise, designed goals, achieved them, and by all accounts inspired the people he was supposed to lead. Not least, Mr. Cain’s life experience suggests that, unlike the incumbent, he will adjust his ideas to reality.” Henninger concludes by opining that “Herman Cain is a credible candidate. Whether he deserves to be president is something voters will decide. But he deserves a serious look.”
He’s getting that look now. Of course, part of Cain’s attraction is that he’s African-American, and he has been making the case that he can “win one-third of the black vote”. This, of course, would be unprecedented in recent presidential elections; African-Americans typically support the Democratic candidate at rates of 90% or more. Even with his approval ratings hovering in the low 40’s, Obama continues to attract support in polls from 85% or more of African-Americans. If Cain were to hold onto the typical Republican coalition and attract 1/3 of the black vote, he would be sitting in the Oval Office in January 2013.
Before you jump on the Cain pizza truck, however, a couple of cautionary points are in order. First, the Zogby poll is an online poll which raises issues of sample bias. I’m not saying it’s inaccurate, but we need to be cautious when interpreting the results. The Fox poll, meanwhile, was in the field immediately after the media boost Cain received based on his Florida victory. Keep in mind that we’ve seen these mini-boomlets before. Bachmann soared in the polls after the Ames debate. She is now in the low single digits in most polls. After Perry entered the race, he also surged to a lead in the polls, only to see that initial wave of support recede. .Cain is but the latest candidate to benefit from a media-induced polling bump. History suggests, however, that as a candidate gets singled out as a potential rising star, the rest of the field adjusts by targeting that individual, aided by the increasingly critical media coverage directed toward top tier candidates. Expect this to happen with Cain’s candidacy.
In a break from past Republican races, when there always seemed to be a candidate in waiting, this Republican race remains very fluid with no obvious frontrunner. As a result, there is a tendency for pundits to overreact to individual events in order to induce some clarity into an otherwise murky electoral picture. But it is far too early to slot these candidates into a stable hierarchy. As evidence, consider Newt Gingrich. While media pundits play “whack a mole” with the Republican frontrunners, Gingrich keeps producing first-rate debate performances while never really getting much media scrutiny. The result is that although he continues to fly under the media radar, his standing in the polls has inched upward in the last two weeks, to the point that he is knocking on the door of first-tier status. The RealClear Politics composite poll now has Newt tied, with Cain, for third place in the Republican race. This despite the pundits all but writing him out of the election script earlier this summer.
Gingrich is hoping that eventually, after the media cycles through most of the Republican flavors of the day, it will begin to realize that his combination of national experience and policy wonkishness makes him a credible contender for the nomination. Cain’s sudden rise in the polls, and the recent growth in Gingrich’s support, is a reminder that, media efforts to suggest otherwise, Republicans have a strong field of candidates, and that voters are in no hurry to settle on a front-runner.
This is going to be fun!