Welcome to Herman Cain's first full day as the front-runner* in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Why the asterisk? Because while he's stormed into first place in national polls and in the most recent survey in Iowa, there's an almost unanimous consensus in the political world that he can't actually win the nomination.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last night puts Cain at 27 percent nationally, with Mitt Romney at 23 percent and Rick Perry at 16. That represents a plunge of 22 points for Perry since the last NBC/WSJ survey in late August -- the exact same size as the increase in Cain's number from then to now. Romney's support, meanwhile, is exactly where it was; he's gained nothing from Perry's fall. The findings jibe with a PPP poll released earlier yesterday that also showed Cain surging ahead.
Cain's dramatic rise is evidence of just how resistant Republican voters are to the idea of nominating Romney, and just how disillusioned they've grown with Perry. At the same time, Cain has clearly impressed them with his confident and likable personality, fierce conservatism, and catchy "9-9-9" tax plan. That he's a black man who eagerly absolves the GOP's Obama-era base of any suspicion of racial animus may have something to do with his appeal too. Whatever the exact reasons, Cain is very popular among Republicans right now, and the race for the nomination has never seemed so volatile and wide open. So why is he being written off? From what I can gather, there six main reasons:
- It's tough to defy gravity when you're in the spotlight: Cain has amassed out-of-this-world popularity among Republican primary voters. The NBC/WSJ poll found that 52 percent of them have a positive view of him, while just six percent have a negative view -- a 46-point spread that no one else even comes close to matching. As impressive as they are, though, these numbers haven't exactly been hard to come by. Cain made a fleeting move in polls back in the spring, but otherwise he's been a nonfactor until the past couple of weeks. So there's been no incentive for his fellow candidates to attack him or for the media to apply much scrutiny, leaving Cain free to make a long, uninterrupted and almost entirely positive first impression on GOP voters. But now that he's in first place, Republicans will finally start hearing unflattering things -- probably a lot of unflattering things -- about him. And when it comes to his popularity, there's really nowhere to go but down.
- He really knows how to step in it: Cain has consistently demonstrated a tendency to make problematic and potentially damaging statements -- the sort of stuff that could get him in real trouble now that he's in the national spotlight. As Jonathan Bernstein noted, his responses at Tuesday night's debate (where he received more attention than usual, a symptom of his new status) showed how vulnerable he is to scrutiny: How would he have handled a sharp follow-up on, say, his claim that Alan Greenspan is a good model for a future Fed chairman? Or his claim that he has "secret" appointees in mind for key positions but that he won't reveal their identities? Cain gives the impression that he has a few basic talking points but that he's winging it otherwise. That's a recipe for disaster.
- He doesn't have a Mickey Goldmill: Rocky Balboa had a wise old trainer who knew exactly how to prepare him for the big fight, but who does Cain have in his corner? At Tuesday's debate, he was asked to name some of his economic advisers. He said he had one, a man named Rich Lowrie, who had helped him craft his 9-9-9 plan. But it turns out that Lowrie isn't actually an economist: He's an investment adviser at a Wells-Fargo branch outside Cleveland. This speaks to how truly alone Cain is in this campaign. He isn't being helped by seasoned political and policy advisers who understand the pratfalls of a national race and who can whip him into shape in order to survive what's ahead.
- 9-9-9 is an oppo guy's dream: There is a real power in the catchy simplicity of Cain's tax plan, which would set personal and business tax rates at nine percent and create a national sales tax at the same rate. But now the press and his opponents are starting to look at it, and they're finding all sorts of problems. It's clearly regressive in nature (although whether that will hurt in a GOP race is an open question). The sales tax provision could alarm conservatives, who may not like the idea of giving the government a new revenue stream. (Rick Santorum briefly tried to make this point at Tuesday's debate -- just wait until other candidates and the media join him.) And a good case can be made that it would blow a hole in the deficit. Those are just the obvious lines of attack. If his opponents decide they want to scare Republicans away from the plan, who knows what specific aspects they'll play up? To fight them off, Cain will need to demonstrate agility that he hasn't yet shown; as Bernstein wrote, Cain's defense of the plan during the debate "was really just limited to repeating how great it was, over and over again."
- Who will stick up for him? Quick: name three prominent Republicans who have endorsed Cain. Stumped? Me too. This hasn't mattered much until now, but it will start to when the press and his fellow candidates turn the heat up. That's when Cain will need voices that Republican voters know and trust rallying to his defense and amplifying whatever talking points he comes up with to defend himself.
- You do know he's not running a real campaign, right? Let me just copy-and-paste from what I wrote yesterday: "Cain has barely spent any time in Iowa (where a PPP poll released yesterday also showed him in first place) and New Hampshire and has almost no day-to-day campaign presence in either state. There are no major Republican elected officials backing him (not yet, at least). He is not running television ads. He didn’t come to this race with any name recognition. His press secretary just left his campaign … to work for a candidate for lieutenant governor of Louisiana. All he’s really done is show up at the debates, hit all of the requisite GOP cattle calls, and done television interviews."
So that's the case against Cain as a serious threat to win the nomination. If it's worth anything, I can think of one other time when a candidate whose prospects were as widely dismissed as Cain's led the pack this close to the first contest. It was on the Democratic side at the end of 1987, about two months before the Iowa caucuses, and it actually involved two different candidates.
At the start of that month, a national poll put Jesse Jackson in first place with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Michael Dukakis at 10 percent. Then, a few weeks later, Gary Hart reentered the race (he had dropped out during a sex scandal back in May) and took the lead himself. But both Hart and (especially) Jackson were generally not treated as serious contenders. Jackson's lead was seen as a product of his name recognition (he was at that point far better known than the rest of the candidates) and because his negative ratings were so high, it was assumed he was already at or close to his maximum level of support. Hart was taken a little more seriously, but he also had high negatives and (like Cain now) essentially no campaign organization.
In the end, Hart received zero percent in Iowa and four percent in New Hampshire, dropping out shortly thereafter. Jackson actually put a scare into the party establishment, winning a bunch of southern states and scoring a shocking victory in Michigan, but then it became a two-way contest between him and Dukakis, and it wasn't close.
Cain's situation is a little different, though, because he's not as well-known -- even within his party -- as Jackson and Hart were and he actually has extremely low negative ratings among those who do know him. In other words, we're pretty much in uncharted waters here. So while there are plenty of logical reasons to assume that Cain will flame out (soon, probably), we can't really say we've seen this story before. Because we haven't.