Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can Herman Cain Really Win the Republican Nomination?

Herman Cain has enjoyed a sudden spike in his poll numbers, both in national primary polls and some early primary state polls (in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida). But Cain's higher poll numbers have not been matched by a corresponding increase in Elephant Watcher's calculation of Cain's odds of winning the Republican nomination. Though Cain's odds may increase in future recalculations, he is still low, at 4%. Why is Cain unlikely to win, and why do his poll numbers overstate his support?

Cain is the latest in a long series of candidates whose poll numbers spiked, only to crash later. In April, Elephant Watcher explained why Donald Trump was unlikely to win despite polling well. A few months after Trump's crash, Michele Bachmann rose in the polls. Elephant Watcher then explained why Bachmann is unlikely to win. A few months later, Bachmann's numbers crashed in the face of a rising Rick Perry. Elephant Watcher responded by explaining why Perry is unlikely to win. Perry's numbers have crashed, and his support has gone to Cain. Now it's Cain's turn to be examined.

As with other candidates, Cain has been given a media honeymoon. Unlike Mitt Romney, whose flaws everyone is aware of, Cain is largely an unknown. He has received attention because of his charisma, but most voters haven't considered the disadvantages to nominating him. Until now, most haven't considered Cain a serious candidate. Now, by virtue of his poll numbers, he is. As time goes on, the media scrutiny will intensify.

Similarly, other candidates have felt little need to attack Cain, because they didn't consider him a real competitor. They were more afraid of alienating voters by unnecessarily attacking Cain. With Cain leading Bachmann and Perry in both national and early state polls, that will change. Perry has always considered Romney to be his chief opponent, and has spent millions of dollars on attack ads. Can Perry continue that strategy when Cain is taking away all his votes?

The authenticity of Cain's conservatism is untested. Voters have assumed that he is as conservative as it gets; he is a Tea Party favorite, after all. Once Cain's opponents research him, they may find that Cain, like every other candidate in the field (except perhaps Bachmann), has taken some very un-conservative positions over the years. And since Cain's electability is already doubtful, he could find himself in the same two-front war that destroyed Perry last month.

Cain is also prone to gaffes. Since Cain has never held elective office and is essentially brand new to politics, he tends to be less informed about various issues than, for example, Romney is. Earlier this year, Cain made a series of gaffes that helped enable Bachmann to take (temporarily) his Tea Party voters. At the moment, debate moderators, interviewers, and Cain's opponents seem more comfortable attacking his "9-9-9" tax plan. The trouble with that course is that Cain is familiar with his own tax plan, just as Mike Huckabee was comfortable fielding attacks against his religion in 2007-08. When Cain is asked about more obscure matters, he is likely to falter. On the other hand, his "9-9-9" plan is certainly open to attack, especially the sales tax component.

Cain will suffer in the coming months due to what we call the "strategic shift." As voting day approaches, voters become more strategic in their thinking. They put aside hopes of electing the candidate they like best, and they focus more on choosing a candidate who can win a general election. Unfortunately for Cain, his main rival will be Romney, who is perceived as highly electable. Cain is perceived as unelectable. The strategic shift will be punishing. If Cain were to win Iowa, it would spark a panic among Republicans who want to beat Barack Obama. They will flock to Romney.