The 6 ways the Herman Cain saga can end

From damning revelations and an epic meltdown to a persecution narrative-fueled victory, and everything in between

Published November 1, 2011 6:30PM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain    (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The evolution of Herman Cain's version of events continued apace this morning, with the Republican presidential candidate saying in an HLN interview that there were "a couple of other things" besides the specific incident he previously recalled in a sexual harassment complaint filed against him in the late 1990s. Cain's acknowledgment came as his campaign manager claimed that the story is now "done" -- a declaration that seems unlikely to satisfy the media, which is now steadily reporting out new details that figure to raise more questions for Cain.

In other words, this story is going to be around for a while, and there's a chance it could get a lot worse for Cain. Or maybe it won't. After all, we still don't know the most important details -- how many women accused Cain, what exactly did they accuse him of and what were the terms of any settlements that were reached? It's still possible that all he's really guilty of is epically bad public relations. That would be an indictment of his skills as a candidate, but it wouldn't force him to exit the race. And for now, at least, plenty of conservative voices are sticking by Cain, raising the possibility that the whole saga could end up boosting his appeal within the GOP.

With all of this uncertainty in mind, here are the six most probable ways this will all shake out for Cain and the rest of the GOP field:

  1. A campaign-killing meltdown. The currently unknown details of the complaints and settlements emerge and they are damning, prompting even Republican voices to speak out against Cain, sending his poll numbers and fundraising into a tailspin, and leading Cain to exit the race.
  2. Steady as she goes. Further reporting either doesn't produce any new details or reveals that the settlements were for modest amounts and that the accusations against Cain were not particularly lurid. Thus would Cain be free to continue insisting that he did nothing wrong, that his intentions with the women had been misunderstood, and that all they'd been given were "termination settlements." His conservative pundit defenders, who have latched onto this story as an opportunity to paint Cain as the liberal media's latest black conservative persecution target, would be able to say "Told you so!" And while the whole episode would raise serious questions about Cain's ability to handle the national spotlight -- a point that some conservatives are already making -- his support in GOP polling wouldn't really decline, mainly because his conservative supporters have no other logical option to rally around. Under this scenario, the episode would merely reinforce the consensus of GOP "elites" that Cain would be a disaster as their nominee, but they'd let the matter drop, satisfied that he's still not a serious threat to win.
  3. Perry reclaims his rightful role. Even if another shoe doesn't drop, the political stupidity of his response -- Cain clearly had no plan to deal with the story even though he was given 10 days' notice -- crystallizes the doubts that even Cain's fans have long had about his seriousness as a candidate and his fitness to lead the GOP ticket. The timing is perfect for Rick Perry, whose early autumn demise, don't forget, was the main reason for Cain's autumn rise. Perry still has lots of money and a serious campaign organization, an unusually high number of influential Republicans are still uncommitted in the race, and around 75 percent of Republican voters still won't say they support Mitt Romney, despite the weakness of his opposition. So once again, there's a mass shift in support between Cain and Perry, but this time it works in the Texan's favor, and the one-on-one race we all expected a few months ago is back on.
  4. Perry's rightful role is claimed by ... someone else: You've seen the video of Perry's bizarre speech in New Hampshire, right? Or what about his baffling decision to dabble in birtherism last week? Under this scenario, Cain's numbers fall off but the jury is so poisoned against him that Perry doesn't benefit. Republican voters are still unwilling to say yes to Romney, though, and need someone else to flirt with. Maybe Newt Gingrich finally experiences the national polling surge that he's supposedly been on the verge of for weeks now. Or maybe, somehow, Michele Bachmann gets another looks (although that's really hard to see). Rick Santorum clearly sees an opportunity here; but is there just something about him that Republicans don't like?
  5. Mitt pulls away -- finally. Maybe this is the moment that the conservatives who have been resisting Romney finally give in, if only because they conclude they have no other acceptable options. Cain's numbers fall, but no one gobbles up the bulk of his support, and when Romney hits 35 percent in a few national polls and opens a clear lead in Iowa, the floodgates open and conservative leaders and activists at last relent.
  6. The obligatory "Cain wins!" scenario: Ed Kilgore sketches out this remotest of remote possibilities well at TNR, but the basic idea is that the persecution narrative that Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and other Cain defenders are now pushing catches fire on the right, elevating Cain to hero status and propelling him to an unlikely victory.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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