Friday, May 27, 2011

Did Herman Cain's Gaffes on the 'Right of Return' and al-Awlaki Hurt Him?

Herman Cain's fortunes have improved over the last few weeks. The departure of other candidates, and the reluctance of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann to enter the race early, have made room for the Tea Party favorite. Cain's name recognition has increased, though he will need to deal with unified establishment opposition in Iowa in the form of Tim Pawlenty.

Cain is likely to receive more media attention--and scrutiny--in the near future. If he is able to hold up to the pressure, he may be able to improve perceptions about his candidacy's legitimacy. If not, he may be marginalized more than he already is.

Cain was interviewed on Fox News Sunday this week. When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it became clear that he was unfamiliar with the "right of return" aspect of the debate (referring to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to lands they left during the mid-20th century). Later this week, Cain admitted that he had not known what the right of return was during that interview.

In a less-publicized gaffe, Cain revealed during an interview with The Atlantic this week that he was unfamiliar with President Obama's policy of killing "enemy combatants," even if they are American citizens (specifically, Anwar al-Awlaki).

Gaffes like these, if they become a pattern, will be fatal to Cain's candidacy. Since Cain has never held elective office, most voters view him as unelectable. Cain must combat this perception by appearing as informed--if not more so--than all the other candidates.

Cain's candidacy has not been weakened much yet, as few voters are paying attention. Gaffes that occur close to election time can be devastating, while gaffes that occur early in the campaign season are often forgotten. But this is more true of isolated gaffes. Gaffes that form a pattern create a "narrative," and it can be very hard to shake the negative impression they leave. Should Cain continue to make similar gaffes in the future, Republican primary voters will abandon him at the first opportunity.