It certainly wasn’t just me; a lot of analysts got some push-back for being so definitively sure that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee wouldn’t be former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. As Cain surged in the polls, with many conservatives loving both his message and delivery, many people wondered how we could be so dismissive.
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Political analysis or punditry (although I hate the term) has a rocky record. We at The Cook Political Report are quite proud to be at the front of the pack—having predicted both the Democratic wave in 2006 and the GOP one in 2010. We also foresaw the 1994 wave, though we underestimated how many seats Republicans would ultimately capture. But sometimes we miss the mark. In the summer of 2007, I was quite sure that Sen. John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination was effectively dead and awfully skeptical that then-Sen. Barack Obama would beat then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nod. Both assessments were obviously wrong. But we—and here I would include our biggest competitors (and good friends), Stu Rothenberg and Nathan Gonzales at The Rothenberg Political Report—are actually pretty good at what we do, looking at things as clinically and professionally as we possibly can.
Coming on the heels of the short-lived surge to the top of the GOP polls of Minnesota’s Rep. Michele Bachmann and, more recently, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s brief tenure as front-runner, Cain’s ascendancy seemed particularly tenuous and even dubious. There is a long list of dark-horse candidates who have won or come close to capturing presidential nominations. And there was always a nucleus of real strategists, a campaign infrastructure, and a strategy that had positioned the long-shot to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
Whether you are talking about George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Howard Dean in 2004, or even the second coming of McCain in 2008, they had considerably more of a campaign apparatus than Cain. Their campaigns were often unorthodox, but their actions were rarely random. They didn’t surge to the top based on seat-of-the-pants decisions.
In short, there was method to their madness. With Herman Cain’s candidacy, there hasn’t been. There has been minimal fundraising. There has been truly bizarre scheduling that only seemed to make sense in the context of selling autographed books at $100 apiece. (Why else would you go on a two-day bus trip of the length of Tennessee, which doesn’t vote until March 6)? My hunch is that Cain’s surge surprised no one more than Cain himself.
But there was more. Several weeks ago, word started circulating that Cain’s business record was not quite as impressive as he claims, specifically as it relates to his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association. Some of his peers privately said that they were astonished at how he was being portrayed. They said that his less than three-year tenure (rather brief in the Washington trade-association world) was rocky and that the restaurant folks couldn’t get rid of him soon enough—possibly because of sexual-harassment allegations. They said it took some time to get the association back on sound financial footing after he left. Some who worked with Cain said that he spent considerable time running around the country giving speeches and that he was a policy lightweight, both internally and externally. But they hesitated to be more specific.
Sunday’s report in Politico that female subordinates complained of inappropriate behavior by Cain said they had received five-figure settlements to leave the restaurant association and keep quiet. This was little more than the shoe that many had been waiting to drop. Cain denied the allegations. But if there is documentation of any settlement, as there appears to be, his denial will hardly suffice.
This will probably be the beginning of the end for Cain’s surge, giving Perry something of a second wind. Perry had the funding, organization, and network to survive his tough period, although he remains damaged merchandise. It’s a decent bet that the GOP race will return to how it was after Perry stumbled but before Cain picked up steam. Perry has enough going for him to be the conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney. Whether he can actually overtake the former Massachusetts governor is another matter, even though two-thirds of the GOP is more ideologically in tune with him than with the more “old establishment,” less-conservative Romney.
Conventional wisdom holds that candidates benefit when they lock down the nomination early. But many believe that Obama was a stronger general-election candidate after surviving and honing his skills in his knockdown, drag-out fight with Clinton. There is no question that Romney now benefits from having run in 2008, getting into this race early, and testing his 2012 messages before the debates and wall-to-wall coverage began. Perry would have similarly benefited from an earlier entrance, a shakedown cruise before the TV lights went on.
This article appears in the Nov. 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.