Sunday, June 5, 2011

Can Herman Cain Become a Serious Candidate?

Luck plays an important role in politics. Candidates can rise or fall based on circumstances beyond their control. Last month, Tim Pawlenty benefited from the departure of some important competitors. May wasn't a bad month for Herman Cain, either.

Cain's main weakness has been (and always will be) the fact that he has never held elective office. He has business experience, but no political experience. Typically, this kind of candidate would not even be allowed onto the stage, let alone win the competition. It's not for no reason that a "businessman" candidate has not won the presidency in recent history. To get any kind of media attention, a candidate must at least have won a U.S. House seat (or be otherwise well-known, like Donald Trump). Even being a governor is sometimes not enough, as former New Mexico governor and political non-entity Gary Johnson would attest.

Combined with Cain's low name recognition, there was a real doubt about whether Cain would be taken seriously, even at the level of someone like Ron Paul. But as the race stands today, Cain has cleared that hurdle. He may not be given much of a chance to win, but he will be included in the primary debates, and he can't be ignored. Why?

Partly it was due to luck. Cain's affiliation with the Tea Party and his being the only black candidate were just enough to get him the poll numbers needed for an invite to the May 5th primary debate. Many of the "top-tier" candidates decided to skip the debate, but just enough people showed up to give it some legitimacy. When people tuned in, they took note of Cain. After all, the only other people there were Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson. Of those, only Pawlenty had a non-zero chance of winning the nomination. Even better, none of them had any charisma or Tea Party credentials. As we've noted before, Sarah Palin kept herself and Michele Bachmann out of the race at the time.

Cain's campaign could have been over before it started, if he had not been allowed access to the debates. That danger has passed. But there is still one gigantic hurdle between Cain and a "serious" candidacy: He must persuade voters that business experience is just as legitimate as political experience. Otherwise, his perceived electability will continue to be low. The Republican establishment fears that Iowans may give an unelectable candidate a win, but this is unlikely. In a future post, we'll explore why that is.

Televised debates have a way of legitimizing a candidacy. As long as you aren't too extreme (like Ron Paul or, for the Democrats, Dennis Kucinich), sharing the stage with a "serious" candidate raises you up to his level. Now that Cain's poll numbers ensure future debate invitations, he'll always be a factor. He's in the running, and has a chance to make his case. Solid performances at the debates will make Cain look more and more like a "real" candidate each time.

Still, Cain is vulnerable to charges that his inexperience leaves him ill-equipped to run for the presidency. His previous gaffes revealed that he may not be as informed as he needs to be. Since blood is in the water, he needs to appear even more knowledgeable than the rest of the field. Otherwise he will not be able to boost his perceived electability. Only time will tell if Cain's up to the challenge. Elephant Watcher calculates that Cain has a 5% chance of winning the nomination.