Heading Into South Carolina Debate, Cain Still Proving Pundits Wrong


CHICAGO – Herman Cain can’t win the Republican presidential nomination. He doesn’t have enough experience or enough money. He’s got too much baggage and too much controversy. So says the conventional wisdom among those in the political “know.”

But the polls – in other words, the people who vote, the people who matter – right now say otherwise.

Ever since Cain won the Florida straw poll in late September, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO – who has never held any elective office – has been surging.

Heading into Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, Cain continues to sit atop the polls. A new CBS News poll released Friday has Cain in the lead with 18 percent support, ahead of the supposed frontrunner, Mitt Romney, at 15 percent and a surging Newt Gingrich, also at 15 percent. In addition, he has raised a whopping $9 million since the start of October.

So are Cain’s naysayers missing something here? Could Cain really win it all? Or is this just a blip on the radar in the race for the White House?

“I think it’s all about context,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher for The Rothenberg Political Report. “Right now, I think Republicans are making a statement about the direction of the country, Barack Obama, the national news media, the business side of the Republican Party. When we hit late December or early January, that’s not just about making a statement. That’s about picking a nominee. I think as we move through the cycle, Republicans will be thinking more about how do we beat Barack Obama, not about making a statement.”

Take the Democrats’ race eight years ago. In late 2003, Howard Dean led John Kerry in the race for the Democratic nomination, but ultimately it was Kerry – viewed as a less radical, more electable option – whom voters backed when it mattered most.

“I don’t think Cain can win the nomination, but we’re still in the preliminaries where people who are conservative, angry – angry at Washington, angry at the establishment, angry at the media – are still free to express their anger by picking Herman Cain, just as Democrats who were frustrated and angry in 2003 at this point in the cycle were free to pick Dean,” Rothenberg said. “It doesn’t cost anything to tell a pollster that you’re for Herman Cain right now. It makes them feel good. It feels like a mark of conscience and courage to say that they want Herman Cain to be their nominee. I suspect it’ll be different when we get into the caucuses and the primaries. Then it’s not simply: Who do you tell the media that you like to make yourself feel good? It’s: Who do you want to be president of the United States?”

If Cain is to mount a serious bid for the Republican nomination, the businessman will need his supporters to propel him to victory in some of the early voting states once the primary season kicks off in January. With a campaign that has seemed more like a book tour at times over the past few months, that could be a tall order despite Cain’s lofty poll numbers.

“We have all these debates and they clearly help people rise and fall, so I think that makes the early four states even more critical because you need to win one,” said Craig Robinson, who heads up TheIowaRepublican.com. “If you can use your numbers to go from nothing to something on the backs of a Florida straw poll victory or a good debate, then what do you think the ramifications will be of someone winning Iowa?”

The Hawkeye State will be the first to vote in the Republican primary cycle. Cain, however, has spent a minimal amount of time there, choosing instead to hit states that figure more prominently in the race for the college football national championship than in the race for the GOP nomination: Alabama? Tennessee? Arkansas?

“To win Iowa, he’s going to have to have some level of organization here. He does not have that today,” Robinson said.

A top Republican operative in Iowa, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is skeptical of Cain’s chances there, arguing that his standing in the polls stems in large part from high name recognition.

“For the past two weeks, you have seen Cain’s name everywhere,” the source said. “Yet, Cain is still not defined solely by this scandal. Additionally, the scandal isn’t defined. Did he really do it? Are the claims real? Is it the ‘liberal media’ facilitating this? Depending on what you initially thought of Cain, you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Cain is slipping in Iowa and does not have the organization to turn out the level of support shown within these poll numbers. But he is still riding a wave of name identification combined with a certain level of sympathy – whether you view that as right or wrong. Which, coincidentally, the answer to that would line up exactly where people were two weeks ago with regard to their support or lack thereof of Herman Cain.”

Is Cain indeed slipping? A new Gallup poll released this week found a decline in Cain’s personal favorability rating following the accusations of sexual harassment that have been leveled against him in the past two weeks. Cain’s Positive Intensity Score was 29 in interviews conducted the week before the harassment allegations came out, but fell to 20 the following week. Additional polling suggests that Cain’s trajectory has flattened recently. In a Quinnipiac poll of Florida this week, Cain had 27 percent support, down from 32 percent support in an NBC/Marist poll there in the middle of October. Ultimately the damage from the allegations may take more of a toll on Cain’s potential support than on his current support.

As Rothenberg noted, the question for Republican voters may be whether or not they want to vote with their hearts or their heads. While Cain has managed to generate a great deal of excitement this fall, Romney is viewed as the more electable candidate next fall. In three key general election states – Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – independent voters have a more unfavorable than favorable opinion of Cain, according to the Quinnipiac polling, something that could be devastating in a head-to-head duel with Obama. Losing those three states would likely prove too much for the GOP to overcome in the race for the White House.

Despite red flags ranging from the sexual harassment allegations to a war chest far smaller than Romney’s or Rick Perry’s, Cain clearly has managed to capture the excitement of a solid chunk of the Republican Party. When CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo started to ask Cain about the allegations at Wednesday’s debate in Michigan, the crowd at Oakland University booed lustily. When Cain told her that “the American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” the crowd cheered loudly.

“I think that he has a very engaging personality. He is entertaining to listen to,” said Robinson. “Look, there’s a lot of Republicans and a lot of conservative activists who love conservative talk radio. What is Herman Cain? An in-person conservative talk radio host. It’s not an insult. He’s got that gift. That’s what he is on the stump. That’s why these people tune into Rush Limbaugh. That’s why they love that stuff. They like the whole package. It’s entertaining and he’s an underdog, and he’s easy to root for.”

Rothenberg offered up an additional possibility behind Cain’s surge: Cain’s race.

“He is so affable. He is likable. He is charismatic. And he is black – the fact that a lot of conservatives can say, ‘Look, we’re supporting this guy.’ He’s an antidote to Barack Obama,” Rothenberg said. “They hear about the media characterization of Republicans as old white guys who have all this latent racism and this says they’re not like that. Herman is just the real outsider and he doesn’t talk like a politician, which a lot of voters like. But when you’re president, you need to talk like a politician. You can’t be talking about ‘Uzbeki-beki-bekistan’ unless you want to be the laughing stock of the world.”

So simply put: Will we still be talking about Herman Cain in six months?

“In six months? No, I don’t think so,” said Robinson.

But when the candidates take the stage at Wofford University in Spartanburg, S.C., for their next debate, no one but Herman Cain will do so as the favorite. Whether that lasts – and if so, for how long – only time will tell.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.