Although his campaign has stumbled badly in recent weeks, Herman Cain could still prove a formidable force in the Republican presidential race. If the Georgia businessman exits the contest, as he hinted he might on Tuesday, it would reshape the volatile field yet again, potentially helping Newt Gingrich, hurting Mitt Romney, and offering the rest of the flagging GOP field hope of revival.
A day after Ginger White, an Atlanta woman, dealt the latest blow to a campaign foundering on foreign-policy gaffes and sexual harassment allegations by offering details of an alleged 13-year affair with Cain, the presidential candidate told members of his senior staff that he is “reassessing” whether to continue his run. News of the alleged affair, which broke on Monday, has led to speculation that Cain will be forced to quit the race.
That raises the possibility of a bonanza for one of his rivals. For all of Cain’s troubles, his supporters have proven surprisingly resilient. A mid-November CNN/ORC poll found him still attracting 17 percent of the vote, trailing only Gingrich and Romney. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll reported his support at 14 percent, still a strong third place.
If he quits, that bloc of support could prove pivotal to one of his opponents -- and there’s evidence much of it could flow toward Gingrich. The former speaker of the House has momentum and leads many national polls, but that’s not the only reason he could be the chief beneficiary of a Cain exit. More importantly, Gingrich’s surge has been fueled by enthusiasm among tea partiers and other conservatives within the GOP, the same type of voters who have loyally stuck by Cain.
Gingrich does best among tea party supporters within the GOP. In the CNN/ORC poll, he drew 31 percent of their support. Next best? Herman Cain, at 21 percent. Quinnipiac reported similar findings, with Gingrich and Cain again one-two (32 percent to 19 percent) among tea party adherents. If Cain departs, those conservatives will look elsewhere for a similar candidate.
“It’s Gingrich’s moment to fill that void,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist. “He needs to reach out to those conservative voters.”
Gingrich, in fact, is Cain’s successor as the latest candidate to emerge as a potential conservative alternative to the front-runner Romney, a title previously held by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and even businessman Donald Trump. All of them eventually faded, but Gingrich, whether because of his experience of simply better timing, has shown signs he might sustain his recent momentum.
The ex-House speaker could also benefit from an unusually friendly relationship with Cain—the two men held an amiable debate in Texas in early November, and Cain has been quick to lavish praise on his fellow Georgian.
Cain’s departure could deal a sharp blow to Romney. The ex-Massachusetts governor, considered among the weakest GOP front-runners in decades, has struggled to crawl past 25 percent in most national polls because of his unpopularity among the party’s conservative base. But he’s benefited from conservatives' inability to coalesce around a single alternative; instead, Romney’s rivals have split the voting bloc that is his biggest threat.
That dynamic changes if Gingrich can consolidate the conservative vote.
“What Romney wants is as many people staying and splitting up the conservative vote as possible,” Mueller said. “If it becomes a two-person race, even a three-person race, it’s trouble for Romney, because he can easily be overtaken.”
Other candidates in the field also stand to benefit from Cain’s exit, particularly if Gingrich falters. Bachmann, Perry, and former Sen. Rick Santorum have each courted the conservative vote vigorously, and each could discover an influx of support if Cain leaves. It gives each of them a better chance to finish in the top three in Iowa, which would give their campaigns momentum heading through the rest of the primary calendar.