Thursday, November 3, 2011

How Much Will the Sexual Harassment Scandal Hurt Herman Cain?

Earlier this week, news reports surfaced about Herman Cain having been accused of sexual harassment in the late '90s. Thus far, the reports are that the National Restaurant Association--where Cain worked at the time--settled cases with two female employees who had accused Cain in separate incidents. Cain's campaign responded by saying that the accusations had been false, and that Cain was either unaware of or uninvolved with the settlement agreements. The identity of the women in question remains undisclosed, and the women have not come forward due to confidentiality agreements (and likely an unwillingness to enter the public spotlight).

Cain's campaign then accused Rick Perry's campaign of having leaked the reports to the media. Perry's campaign denied it, attempting to shift the blame to Mitt Romney's campaign (which also denied involvement). Meanwhile, conservative media largely defended Cain, suggesting the charges were false or exaggerated, and that the liberal media was trying to attack Cain unfairly.

How much will the scandal hurt Cain? A scandal can harm a candidate in one of two ways. A severe scandal may undermine a candidate's strengths, calling into question the basis for the candidate's appeal. A scandal can also contribute to known weaknesses of a candidate, reinforcing a negative perception that already exists about him.

The present scandal, if severe enough, could harm Cain's candidacy in both ways. Cain's strengths are his conservatism and charisma. If people believe Cain is guilty of sexual harassment, it tarnishes the image people have of his personality. The second way it could harm Cain is by contributing to a preexisting perception that Cain is unelectable. Whether the scandal is severe or mild, it adds more weight to the argument that Cain should not win the nomination because he will lose the general election against Barack Obama.

There have been few polls taken since the news broke, but those that have been taken do not show any signs of Cain suffering damage from this scandal. Polls suggest that, for now, Republicans generally do not believe that Cain was guilty of sexual harassment. They believe that the charges were trumped up and that Cain is simply the victim of an attack by the liberal media. If new details or evidence surface, and people believe the accusations were well-founded, then Cain will suffer much heavier damage.

To some extent, the damage may be less than it will appear in the future. A few weeks ago, Elephant Watcher explained why Herman Cain will not win the Republican nomination. Cain's poll numbers were already likely to fall in the near future, even before news of the scandal broke. As Cain's numbers fall, observers may incorrectly attribute all of Cain's decline to the scandal.

Regardless, Cain will be on "damage control" for the near future. There are two primary debates scheduled to take place next week, and Cain will almost certainly be asked about the scandal. If damaging new information surfaces prior to those debates, Cain will be trapped in the media spotlight and forced to answer questions he would rather ignore.