In early September Herman Cain was barely a blip on the screen, happily scraping by with just under 4 percentage points on the national polling scale. Even though he was the first in a crowded Republican primary field to formally announce his bid (no, media fam, it wasn’t Newt Gingrich), few took the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and one-time U.S. Senate candidate from Georgia seriously.
After all, who in their right-leaning, tea party mind was going to let a Black man win their Republican primary?
But, lately, Cain is much more than just racial window dressing for a color-less Republican Party eager to claim “Big Tent” diversity. Cain is looking real — for real. He’s no longer the stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb Black man on the debate stage.
Since September 11, Cain has rocked the polling stratosphere, climbing from 4.3 percent on average to a space shuttle height of 26 percent by late October. He’s already a good point ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the slick, flip-flopping hair-gel ad that is still considered an inevitable shoo-in for the party’s nomination.
But, not so fast say some longtime observers who don’t think Cain is a fleeting one-night stand or flavor of the month. Clearly, Cain’s staying power in the polls — despite doubts over his ability to build a professional campaign team — is more than just the month’s ice cream since it’s been, now, longer than a month. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, Cain is a stunning four points ahead of Romney, 25 percent to 21 percent respectively.
“That’s all charming, but with a party so determined to beat President Obama, and with such good chances to do so, can this Cain flirtation blossom into something real?” asks a skeptical John Dickerson in Slate, perhaps undergoing some slow conversion. “Won’t people start to focus on electability and turn to Romney? The answer (at least as Cain’s people see it): Electability may not be the liability the political elites might think. And actually, the political elites don’t think Cain has an electability problem: 74 percent of Republican insiders in a recent Huffington Post poll think Cain can beat Obama.”
Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen is somewhere near agreement with Dickerson: it would be fatal for either the crowded Republican field or President Obama to underestimate the Cain surge. “Herman Cain is getting pretty close to being something more than the flavor of the month,” observes Jensen. “Romney’s story continues to be stability. In Nevada he was at 31 percent in January, 24 percent in April, back to 31 percent in July, and now at 29 percent. In Wisconsin he was at 12 percent in March, 17 percent in May, 13 percent in August, and now 18 percent in October. The cast of characters around him has risen and fallen dramatically over the course of the year but he’s stayed basically in the same range the whole time.”
“The question for him becomes when — if ever — he’s going to be able to build on this solid but not significant amount of support he has,” adds Jensen.
But, before we get into whether or not Cain can beat President Obama, it’s worth understanding why he looks so much like Obama did in 2008.
Cain seems like the quintessential example of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (a classic you should watch in its entirety on YouTube when you get a chance). Political — but not the typical politician. His mere presence in the race as a successful businessman and as a job creator vs. the typical political candidate is a testament to the present mood of the country.
This is a rare political year where people aren’t “just looking for a new candidate” but, they are looking for the person who can present the best and most effective ideas. People seem tired of the slick, gimmicky, typical games of politics. Which is interesting considering Cain was chair of the Kansas City Federal Reserve and head of the National Restaurant Association, a major lobbying group.
But, that’s the point: He’s skillfully downplayed that in a political climate that views professional, career politicians as toxic. And, it’s a combination of media power (with pundits, reporters, editors and advertising hungry publishers feeding the sensationalism) and good ol’ fashion grassroots. Cain was on a national speaking tour at events sponsored by both political and non-political organizations for more than a year before running. There was already quite a large group of people who had expressed sincere interest in him as a candidate, but many people in mainstream political circles still weren’t really aware of who he was.
Now, with the combination of live political rallies, social networking sites, and primetime debates, everyday people have been provided with the opportunity to hear what he has to say. They are visiting his website, Googling him, buying his book, and hungry to hear more. People are looking for “something else.”
Much like candidate Obama in 2008.
Still, even with the similarities between Black Republican Cain and Black Democrat-turned-first-Black-President Obama, can the affable Georgia grin beat back lean and telegenic Chicago style?
Going back to the polls, Cain does have a problem in terms of primary voters: in a recent Public Policy Polling Nevada survey only 41 percent of those liking him said they would “definitely” vote for him as opposed to 59 percent of those feeling Romney saying they’d end up voting for the flat former Bay State Governor. Hence, Cain’s path to the nomination may not be as open as presumed. There are serious devils dancing around the polling number details once pollsters get into nuance and break through the star-struck idealism of a Republican electorate that doesn’t like surprises or X-Factors.
Cain is just that: an X-Factor. Republicans are not like Democrats, rarely seen working off emotion when Election Day arrives as much as they are glued to loyalty. Romney, since 2008, has been paying dues for his moment.
Another real problem, as Dickerson opined in Slate, is electability — as far as the numbers are concerned. In every major poll, Godfather’s Pizza man cannot beat the biracial son from Hawaii. According to the Real Clear Politics averages, President Obama soundly spanks Herman Cain by over 8 percentage points, 48 percent to 39.8 percent. An Oct. 23rd Rasmussen Reports poll, which leans GOP, has Obama ahead by 6 points. An Associated Press poll from a week earlier shows Cain behind by 6 points. And, TIME Magazine and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls have Cain far behind like the turtle racing the hare, minus 12 points and 11 points respectively.
That’s compared to only a 1.2 percentage spread between Obama and Romney according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Obama can’t seem to get any farther than 4 percentage points ahead of Romney, with two major and typically Democratic-leaning polls — Democracy Corps and Public Policy Polling — actually finding a tie between the two.
And, even lone star ranting libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, does better than Herman Cain in a hypothetical match-up against Obama: minus 6.2 percentage points. So, while Cain averages better against the President than Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., or the suddenly surging former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he’s still having trouble resonating with the general electorate any better than a fringe-sounding and cantankerous old white guy who wants to bring back the gold standard.
The recent YouGov poll is a bit more generous with the spread.
In terms of presidential vote preference, President Obama only leads Cain by 2 points, with just 1 percentage point more Independents voting or leaning for Cain than for the president (spelling trouble for Obama). Cain even does better than Romney in this case. But, that’s based on the following question: “If the election were held today?”
In a hypothetical 2012 match-up, however, the numbers shake out differently. It’s as if the electorate collectively knew it was changing its mind by November of next year.
Cain gets hammered by Obama in YouGov’s hypothetical, 27 percent to 40 percent — with only 9 percent of voters saying they’d vote for either cat. For Romney, it’s a lot better, even though he still loses: his 30 percent against the president’s 32 percent, with more people saying they’d vote for either candidate and less saying they’re “Not Sure.”
Another take-away from the YouGov poll that you don’t get anywhere else: What do Black voters think of Herman Cain?
While only 74 percent of African-American voters clearly support the president in a hypothetical match-up and 17 percent are still not sure who they’re voting for (a problem for Obama since he’ll need more), Cain only gets 3 percent of the Black vote; he gets 6 percent if the election were held today — compared to 19–28 percent of Latinos. Romney gets 3 percent of the Black vote, as well.
But, as troubling for the president is that only 67 percent of African Americans support him in a hypothetical match up against Romney, with 20 percent “Not sure.” That’s surely ominous for the president as he struggles to aggressively shore up his voting base.