Optimism, candor boost Cain in polls
WASHINGTON - He’s more than Mr. Congeniality, popular for his straight-shooting sense of humor and powerful gospel-singing voice. Herman Cain, a pizza magnate, conservative talk-radio host, and the only serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination without prior political chops, has in recent weeks proved to be a candidate who some analysts say should be taken seriously.
The public is doing just that. In recent national polls, following impressive debate performances and straw poll wins that caught the political establishment by surprise, Cain has suddenly risen to the top of the pack, running almost even with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
“The surge is real. He deserves better than being dismissed as the flavor of the week,’’ said Todd Domke, a Massachusetts Republican political analyst. “A lot of liberal pundits make the mistake of thinking this is just a fluke, but the more conservatives have seen him in action, the more they like him.’’
Cain has managed to capture a strong segment of conservative support by exuding optimism and authenticity while advancing a simple - critics would say simplistic - economic plan with the catchy branding of “9-9-9’’: a 9 percent across-the-board tax on personal income, businesses, and sales.
Cain’s “up by the bootstraps’’ life story also holds inspiring appeal to a Republican electorate with strong beliefs in free enterprise. Cain, 65, grew up poor in segregated Atlanta, where his mother worked as a maid and his father held simultaneous jobs as a barber, janitor, and chauffeur to make ends meet.
A math major at Morehouse College, Cain started his working career as a Navy mathematician. When he was not promoted as quickly as a white colleague, Cain pursued a master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University. That connection helped him land a management job at Coca-Cola , Cain wrote in his biography, “This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House,’’ released last week.
He rose quickly in the corporate world, landing vice presidencies at Pillsbury and Burger King, where he donned a uniform and learned to flip burgers as part of his training, before becoming chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza at age 42. He said he turned around a company on the verge of bankruptcy by focusing on restaurant basics: quality, service, and cleanliness.
“Now, as I travel the country, campaigning for America’s highest office, I see parallels between the situation that existed at Godfather’s when I came on board and the state of our union today,’’ wrote Cain, who likes to refer to himself as The Hermanator.
Despite his popularity with voters, political scientists say it would be an extraordinary feat if Cain, who in 2004 lost the Republican US Senate nomination in Georgia, were to secure the presidential bid. The last time in American history that a non-military candidate who had never held public office won the nomination was when corporate attorney Wendell Willkie ran against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Willkie lost.
“Political experience does matter,’’ Sabato said. “You never say never, because parties sometimes do odd things. But the chances are very slim.’’
Cain’s recent rise occurred swiftly, thanks in no small part to gaffes made by two former Tea Party favorites: Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Governor Rick Perry of Texas.
At the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames in August, which Bachmann won, Cain barely registered. True, the former glee club member drew hundreds to his overflowing tent in Ames and mesmerized the standing-room-only crowd by belting out gospel songs while supporters feasted on Godfather’s Pizza. But he finished fifth.
The turning point appeared to occur during the Sept. 22 GOP debate in Orlando, where an energized crowd repeatedly interrupted his statements with applause. He railed against federal health care reform by connecting it to his own battle with colon and liver cancer.
Cain, who was given a 30 percent chance of survival, said he would be dead had “Obamacare’’ been in effect during his treatment because care would have been delayed under bureaucratic oversight. He has now been cancer-free for five years.
“That was the most poignant moment in the debate,’’ Domke said. “It wasn’t the political point that moved people. He just came across as this guy who has an inspiring story who has really overcome a lot.’’
Cain has drawn criticism recently for opting to embark on a national book tour instead of investing his energy in retail politics in early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa - a strategic mistake, some say, and an indication that he is not campaigning seriously.
Sabato thinks Cain’s candidacy will prove to be another “polling parabola’’ along the lines of Bachmann’s and Perry’s sudden rise and fall. “You go up quickly; you come down quickly. You’re a phenomenon. But there is a time limit.’’
But Domke said the book tour can actually boost Cain’s standing by reinforcing the idea that he has a real success story to tell.
From a Barnes & Noble in Texas on Thursday night, Cain appeared on the liberal-leaning political news show “The Last Word,’’ where he was grilled, at times with hostility, by Lawrence O’Donnell.
Conservatives appreciate the fact that Cain, unlike his competitors, has the courage to take the risk and “go into the lion’s den and debate,’’ Domke said. “They want someone who will stand up for himself and the country and speak with conviction.’’
At moments Cain has made impolitic statements, such as claiming that African-Americans have been brainwashed into voting for Democrats; that being gay is a choice; that poor, unemployed people should blame themselves; and, earlier in his campaign, that American communities should be allowed to ban mosques and that he would carefully screen any Muslims for terrorist ties before accepting them into his administration. But the controversies have only fueled his popularity among conservatives, Domke said.
“People want the blunt truth even if they disagree with it,’’ Domke said. “Cain is a big contrast to Romney, who comes across as programmed. Tea Partiers want someone who is not a slick politician, and Cain comes across as much more trustworthy. ’’
Chris Chocola, president of Club for Growth, which advocates for limited government and lowering taxes, is urging Republican primary voters to give Cain a closer look.
“He doesn’t have the most money. He doesn’t have the best organization. But he’s struck a chord with people that is real,’’ Chocola said. “People can go ahead and dismiss him but they do so at their peril.’’
As for Cain himself, he believes that in a general election he could deliver a third of the African-American vote, a daunting proposition given that black voters are overwhelmingly Democrats and that he would be running against the first African-American president.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, said that in the unlikely scenario that Cain ends up the Republican nominee, his candidacy would not affect the black vote.
“The right wing has always had black poster boys. They serve a purpose of essentially saying, ‘See? We’re not racist. We like old Herman Cain,’ ’’ Bositis said. “Cain is not going anywhere. He is not qualified to be president.’’
Cain shrugs off those criticisms, as well as comedians who mock him in the tone of Stepin Fetchit; he even finds it hilarious, saying in his book that Jon Stewart “takes shots at me not because I’m black but because I’m a conservative.’’
“I refuse to get into this whole race-card thing,’’ Cain wrote. “I’ve been called ‘Oreo,’ ‘sellout,’ ‘Uncle Tom,’ and ‘shameless.’ . . . I can understand, as a black conservative whose campaign is gaining momentum, that liberals . . . are getting nervous about me.’’
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.