The new front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is a 65-year-old business executive with virtually no political experience, who seems to know virtually nothing about foreign affairs, is prone to bizarre verbal gaffes, and who also happens to be black.
How do we understand the Herman Cain phenomenon? There doesn’t seem to be a historical precedent for such an unconventional candidate doing well in a party primary – Ross Perot, the nearest analogue I can think of, ran as an independent in 1992 and 1996, and probably would not have done well if he had run in the Republican primary (at least according to polls at the time).
The best answer is that Mr. Cain’s success thus far is a unique result of the times, in combination with his own interesting persona. In some sense, nearly every presidential election can be explained in this way: Barack Obama would have been soundly ignored as a candidate in 2004; George W. Bush benefited, in 2000, from having the exact opposite personality of Bill Clinton.
But in those prior cases, voters were still being asked to compare apples to apples – one member of the professional political class to another. Herman Cain represents something completely different, a true outsider who is out-politicking the politicians during a presidential primary season. How is this possible? Below are four reasons that Herman Cain has a chance of winning.
1) The Happy Warrior Mr. Cain loves to smile. Not the condescending, professor-speaking-to-the-class-of-freshmen that President Obama deigns to flash, or the almost creepy “Trust Me” grimace we get from Mitt Romney. The Herman Cain smile is deep, comforting, and genuine – like the one we get from a favourite uncle or Santa Claus. In a time of an angry, bitterly divided electorate, Mr. Cain’s smile represents an appeal to optimism, and a rejection of the partisan hatred that we’re subjected to daily. No candidate in either party since Ronald Reagan has managed to convey such personal optimism, and it strikes a chord with those voters who want to be partisan without being hateful.
2) The Anti-Obama As mentioned above, we often turn to an opposite personality as a successor to the presidency. Certainly, that’s what Republican primary voters see in Mr. Cain; although in this case, it’s less about personality than it is about experience and outlook. President Obama is the quintessential Gen-X upper middle class intellectual: all the best schools, groomed for years for a bright career in public service, and zero private-sector experience.
By contrast, we have the Baby Boomer Cain: roots in poverty, working-class education, climbed the corporate ladder for decades, and finally enters politics as a third career. To the extent that Republican primary voters believe that Obama’s elitist pedigree is the source of his presidential failures, Mr. Cain benefits with his radically opposite biography.
The contrast become even more stark as Mr. Obama plays the populist resentment card, stoking up anger against “fat cats” in order to play to the angry portion of the Democratic base. Mr. Cain, by contrast, is one of those very fat cats—and had to work extremely hard to overcome obstacles that Mr. Obama can’t even conceive of in order to get there. Which man has the more compelling story to tell voters? Certainly, the Cain “up from poverty” narrative appeals to Republicans, and it may well resonate with independents, too.
3) The Non-Politician The American public is not naive—for the most part, we grudgingly accept a certain amount of cynicism and dishonesty from our politicians. It is, after all, part of the job description. But, there’s evidence that many folks have hit their limit, that politics as usual is no longer an acceptable way to conduct the nation’s business. Between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, and the fair amount of general public support for both, people on both the right and the left are expressing a new level of frustration with the political class.
While this topic deserves an essay all to itself, the important thing for Herman Cain is that he’s the only one in the race who isn’t an establishment politician. You can see how this plays out in the volatility—when other GOP candidates have found themselves on the wrong end of verbal gaffes (particularly Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann) their numbers have plummeted. Voters are turned off by establishment politicians who can’t get their words straight, who can’t create a coherent narrative of why they are running, and who seem to be just as cynical as the silver-tongued, central casting candidate who no one wants to vote for (see: Romney, Mitt).
Mr. Cain, on the other hand, gets stronger in the polls with each garbled statement and misspoken policy stance. It’s as if voters are judging him by an entirely different standard—because he’s not a politician, he’s getting a presumption of innocence. He’s not cynical, they seem to believe—he’s just a regular guy who misspeaks. It’s a strange dynamic, and one that is new to US politics on the national level. But it is definitely working in Cain’s favour, even helping to inoculate him against presumed charges of workplace sexual harassment.
4) The Race Factor Did I mention that Mr. Cain is black? There are people to whom this matters not at all. There are certainly some few racists intractable who find it intolerable. But there are many within the Republican coalition for whom a Cain-Obama match-up is the Super Bowl, the Final Four, The Thrilla in Manila, and D-Day all wrapped up in one.
It is the ultimate steel cage match-up of opposed political visions, conservative vs. liberal, represented by two very different, extremely unlikely protagonists. Many conservatives view this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, to pit the opposing visions of America – big government vs. individual empowerment– against each other. No one personifies the conservative vision of individualism better than Mr. Cain; and in their view Mr. Obama is the perfect exemplar of the affirmative action, entitlement generation. The belief, clearly, is that given a choice between these two opposite ideas, independents will flock to Mr. Cain and affirm a new generation of conservatism ascendancy.
It could happen; or, alternatively, Mr. Cain’s numerous (and huge) flaws as a candidate could eventually bring him down, either in the primaries or in the general election. But we should all be thankful that he is running—Herman Cain has demonstrated that politics does not need to be dominated by politicians; and most importantly, that ordinary citizens stand a chance at re-taking the government from the ossified and corrupt political class.
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