There’s a scene in the new movie Moneyball when Brad Pitt’s character, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, is sitting around a table with the team’s grizzled scouts. Statistics, not scouting reports, he informs them, are the new metrics. The game has changed. The old rules no longer apply.
This is heresy, and it’s just as unnerving to the gray-haired scouts as Herman Cain’s presidential campaign is to the Republican political establishment. The never-before officeholder sitting on top of the polls is challenging the template that demands a painstakingly built ground game in the states with the earliest nominating contests. Cain has traded the grind of a shoe-leather campaign for online networking and cable TV, capitalizing on the trend of the last few election cycles in which public opinion is increasingly driven by national media saturation.
Running for president is supposed to be work. Cain, always smiling and coming up with clever turns of phrase, looks like he’s having fun. “I feel like we are pioneering something different … a new model of the way campaigns will be run in the future,” said Steve Grubbs, chairman of Cain’s campaign in Iowa. “The conventional wisdom is that you have to be in Iowa all the time, but in this age of Facebook and YouTube and debates on cable television, there are so many ways for candidates to touch voters.”
Grubbs is from the old school. He went to his first caucus in 1980 with his parents, at the age of 16. He met his wife at the 1984 caucus. He spent five weeks on a bus tour with Steve Forbes in 1999. But Cain’s success has made Grubbs, a former state party chairman, a convert to what he calls “the Block model”—named for Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, a veteran of Wisconsin politics. “You still have to have a strong presence in the early states,” Grubbs said, “but the Block model says, first and foremost you gain a national presence, and then you begin to harvest votes in those states.”
The establishment says to hire the right political consultants and pollsters. Cain has surrounded himself with a small circle of mostly Washington outsiders. The establishment says to spend time and money coddling voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. No thanks, says Cain, who has seven staffers between the two states. He has stumped in Iowa only once in the last two months, and he spent the past week in Illinois, Texas, and Alabama. His new ad on Rush Limbaugh’s show airs in all 50 states.
Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, understands the power of building a national brand. He is now recognized by 78 percent of Republicans nationwide, a gain of 28 points since September and 57 points since March, according to the latest Gallup survey. Even after a week in which his rivals took turns flogging his “9-9-9” economic plan and his conflicting statements on abortion, Cain is still ahead of the pack. In a CBS/New York Times poll released on Tuesday, he had 25 percent support among Republicans, while Mitt Romney had just 21 percent.
Public opinion is increasingly driven by national media saturation.
Of course, national polls reflect celebrity more than electoral tallies and mean only so much in a nominating contest that will be decided state by state. But Cain also has climbed to the top in pivotal, early-voting states where he has spent limited time. He’s leading the polls in Iowa and South Carolina.
Cain did not earn those ratings by mobilizing precinct captains or putting up yard signs. Tim Pawlenty’s organization in Iowa was considered the best in the field; he dropped out two months ago after a poor showing in the state straw poll. Michele Bachmann triumphed in that contest, widely considered the first major test of a campaign’s organizational strength, and then promptly faded from view. “Candidates used to have to organize through the party apparatus,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, one of the best-known tea party organizations. “The big money, the consultants, the endorsements—that’s old-style politics. Those things don’t matter so much.”
Consider this contradiction: A candidate who spends less time shaking hands in small-town diners and more time wearing a microphone in a television studio is viewed as more down to earth. Cain doesn’t stick to the script, and that makes him seem “real.” That he’s an African-American conservative further turns convention on its head. The buzz over a new online video in which Block, Cain’s mustachioed muse, takes a drag from a cigarette is another reflection of the campaign’s rogue appeal.
Block spent the last six years as the Wisconsin director of Americans for Prosperity, the tea party group bankrolled by the Koch family’s corporate empire. He calls The Audacity to Win, a memoir of Obama’s 2008 campaign by campaign manager David Plouffe, “required reading.” “There are a lot of parallels with what we’re doing,” Block said, pointing to Obama’s use of social networks to nurture grassroots support and his strategy of contesting states that his party traditionally ignored.
The old guard says Iowa Republicans won’t venture out on a cold January night to caucus for Herman Cain. They may be right. Beane’s Oakland A’s stunned fans with a 20-game winning streak but didn’t make it to the World Series. Still, he changed the game.
This article appears in the October 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.