Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Herman Cain's poll boost matters -- for Mitt Romney

By Nicholas Wilbur 

It's an exciting time for the Herman Cain campaign.

The pizza company CEO has jumped into second place in the Republican presidential race, according to several new polls, and he's up 20 points over "frontrunner" Mitt Romney, according to Zogby.

Sadly, Cain's actual odds of winning even a single primary race, to say nothing of his chances of securing the GOP nomination, let alone the White House, are no higher than Sarah Palin's odds of being selected U.S. ambassador to Russia under a Rick Santorum administration.

Despite the media hype surrounding Cain's meaningless straw poll victory in Florida, his recent surge in the public opinion surveys actually says more about Mitt Romney and Rick Perry than it does Cain.
In a perfect summarization, as usual, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote, "They Don't Like You, Mitt. They Really Don't Like You": 

I don't think Cain can win the nomination, and I'm not sure he really wants it (as opposed to a nice Fox News gig.) Saying you might vote for Herman Cain for president – of the United States, not of a pizza chain – can only be read as a cry of protest.

I don't see how Republicans could be making this any more plain.
They do not want to nominate Mitt Romney.

That is why Republicans were so desperate to recruit New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose recent announcement that he would forgo the 2012 GOP presidential race is not unrelated to Cain's rise. The 15 percent of likely voters who backed a hypothetical Christie candidacy represented the growing "anyone but Romney" voting demographic, and in light of Perry's decline, Cain was the next-next-next best option.

Similar to Michele Bachmann's brief rise this summer, and Rick Perry's surge in August, Cain too will fade.

"By traditional yardsticks of measuring a presidential candidate's potential success, he falls short," Charlie Cook says of Cain (although he could just as easily be talking about Romney):

For hard-charging conservatives who have become disillusioned with Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and now Perry, and who have resisted the appeal of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, Cain may be the new flavor of the month. But without the apparatus, money, or expertise in actually winning a party’s nomination, it’s doubtful that he can go very far. The current flurry won’t keep the titans of business and finance on the sidelines; their skepticism will likely mirror that of the political pros and pundits.

Which is to say, let us not kid ourselves about Cain's chances of winning anything in 2012. As I noted already, "Republican voters won't vote for a black man as president. They didn't in 2008, and they won't in 2012." Why? Because, as history shows, George Bush isn't the only Republican who doesn't like black people. 

"Please, someone, anyone, LIKE ME!?!" – photo: Reuters
The more interesting revelation about the latest poll numbers is that while Cain has surged and Perry has fallen, Romney hasn't moved. He remains the undesirable frontrunner.

In the Zogby poll, 15 percent of all likely voters said they wouldn't vote, were unsure who they would vote for, or would choose "someone else" if Perry were the Republican nominee. If Romney were the nominee, this "Other" category rose to 20 percent.

In the next month, it will be this demographic of unsure, unlikely-to-vote, unsatisfied-with-the-current-options voters who will matter. Cain's rise, like Bachmann's and Perry's before him, will shrink, and we'll be back where we were in January, when anyone with a tri-corner hat could have announced their candidacy and overtaken Romney. But time is running out. It's too late for any other candidates to enter the race, and so the base will have to make a choice. Considering that Romney's five-year presidential campaign has done nothing to improve his appeal with the base, the anyone-but-Romney sentiment is evident.

His inability to invigorate the base or rally donors – to say nothing of his failure to have anything more than a survivor's presence in the last three debates – will start to grind on those looking for a candidate who can invigorate the base, can rally donors, and, hopefully, with a bit more debate preparation, can get some hopefully-positive press following his upcoming debate performances.

For those reading between the lines, yes, I was referring to Perry.

The Texas governor may be dumb, scary, offensive, and inarticulate, but he's still the only candidate who has the charm, the fundraising capabilities, and the campaign know-how to separate himself from the pack.

As we've seen, this won't happen as a result of his mere presence as a Romney alternative. That ship has sailed. But it can happen if he hits his stride. Romney and Cain are each carrying an 800-pound gorilla on their back. One is Mormonism, which one in five conservative voters says disqualifies Romney as a presidential candidate. The other is race, which is too risky a topic for anyone in the mainstream media to acknowledge but which nonetheless disqualifies Cain as a viable candidate for Republican voters as well.

As Cook said in his column, "It's Perry's to Win": 

Clearly, most Republican voters would much prefer a very, very, very conservative nominee to the more buttoned-down Romney... It's unclear whether they want, or will end up supporting, Perry – but, obviously, they want a Perry-like conservative. But it comes down to Perry's capacity to turn the corner, to become a national, as opposed to a Texas or a Deep South, candidate.

Perry has shown a proclivity to step on his own body parts and will undoubtedly do so again. The question is whether he learns from his mistakes. If he does, he will be the GOP nominee and stands a fair chance of beating President Obama, given the horrific economy and the public's loss of confidence in the president. If he doesn't and isn't more careful about what he says and how he says it, Perry will either lose the nomination, or he will win it and then lose a general election that's there for the taking. Simple as that. 

If the last year's worth of public opinion surveys says anything, it's that the Republican base is not in Romney's corner. And so far, he's done nothing to make the case that they should be, which is why conservative voters are consistently giving a thumbs up to every anti-Romney candidate who joins the race.

So far, Perry has been the only Republican presidential candidate to reach the 30 percent approval mark (an average of all polls). The support is there and the nomination is his to win – if only because Romney still can't find the momentum needed to rile the base.

It may not be easy to predict who will win the GOP nomination, but if it comes down to a black Republican, a Texan, and a Mormon, it's not difficult, given the current Republican electorate, to predict who won't win it. 

(Cross-posted at Muddy Politics.)

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