Herman Cain's rise is a sign of just how weak the Republican presidential field is; or, why it's looking more and more like Romney
According to a new Fox News poll, for what that's worth, Pizza Man Herman Cain, a Tea Party favorite (and, because he's black, the excuse some on the right need to continue their not-so-subtle racist assault on Obama), has jumped up to third place among Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination. With 17%, way up from 6% before this month's debates, he's just back of Perry, the former savior/frontrunner who has collapsed back to 19%. Romney leads the way with 23%, his support remaining consistent.
So what are we to make of this? Is Cain for real? Is Perry done? Is the race Romney's to lose? Is Bachmann, once the race's upstart darling but now reduced to a paltry 3% (tied with Santorum and one point behind Huntsman), finished?
In order: no, possibly, probably, yes.
Cain isn't for real. His strength here is a sign not that he's a genuine contender but that the field is incredibly weak, with conservatives (and more specifically the anti-Romney base) still looking for someone to support. There's no way he wins.
It's too early to say Perry's done, but obviously he's in decline. That decline may not be irreversible, but his performance thus far has been less impressive than one might expect from the man deemed the Republican savior, the sure-thing conservative alternative to Romney. There was a lot of hype, he got in the race, there was more hype, he zoomed into the lead, it looked like a fait accompli, and then... well, people got to know him a bit and didn't really like what they saw.
As Jon Chait explains, "This is a man [Perry] who was put on Earth to defeat Mitt Romney. He is the walking embodiment of the Republican id." In other words, he should win. Easily. But it hasn't worked out that way so far. Clearly, the party establishment, the views of which now seems to voiced by Karl Rove (which shows just how right-wing the establishment is), doesn't like him, and its quiet campaign (with Rove taking implicit swipes at him in his WSJ column) to bring him down in favor of Romney has taken its toll. But Perry has also proven to be an incredibly weak candidate. Sure, he has the look and the talking points, but the 24/7 news cycle has exposed him as, well, as something of a dumb-ass. And the debates certainly haven't helped. Of course, most people don't pay attention to the debates, but the narrative of Perry as a less-than-impressive thinker, to put it mildly, seems to have taken hold. Normally this might not matter. Americans don't look for intellectuals to lead them. But with the memory of George W. Bush still fresh in people's minds, and with people looking for ideas on how to address the ongoing economic crisis, a lack of intellectual depth, not to mention an ability to handle even fairly simple policy questions, doesn't go far these days. In this sense, Perry makes Romney look like a genius.
Basically, Perry peaked way, way, way too soon. And, from what we now know of him, it was never likely that he would ever stay on top for long, let alone from the time he got in through the primaries. He's the kind of guy who would do well at a party leadership convention with delegates voting largely on first appearances. Under the bright light of national scrutiny, not just from the media but from his own party, he has withered badly.
So who's left? Not Bachmann, of course, and not Gingrich or Paul, who come in well back at fourth (11%) and fifth (6%), respectively, in the Fox News poll.
So, then, Romney. And, yes, with Perry struggling (and possibly not able to recover, though it's still too early to count him out) and Cain a non-contender, the race is very much his to lose. And yet, I still contend that he has a fairly low ceiling. Note that even with Perry's fall, Romney's support has remained constant. His ceiling may be higher than 23%, but what is it? 30%? Maybe 35%? Even if it's 40%, that would mean a majority of Republicans against him -- a solid majority. That majority may end up being divided among a number of lesser candidates, including Perry, but there's still room, should Perry continue to falter, for a right-wing candidate to emerge as a more formidable rival.
Who could that be? Not Christie, touted by many but unlikely to run and certainly not the sort of anti-Romney conservative the party's right-wing base is looking for (he's anti-union and an authoritarian bully, sure, but he's way too sensible in other ways, not to mention an ideologically questionable northeasterner).
Palin? Well, you know that dream won't die. (And so you know we haven't heard the end of the speculation. And you know she'll continue to be a tease.)