To understand the dynamics of the Republican nominating contest one must first understand the narrative that has been accepted and pushed by the media. The standard narrative is that Mitt Romney is the frontrunner and presumptive nominee for the Republicans. Most stories therefore approach the other candidates as they relate to Mitt Romney. This is important because it puts every other candidate in the position of arguing not why they should be the nominee, but why they should be the nominee instead of Romney.
I always found this curious because Romney has never expanded his appeal much beyond his original supporters from 2008 despite campaigning continuously since then. Mitt does have some formidable strengths that would make him a solid general election candidate. He has business and governance experience, he has demonstrated an ability to pull in independent and even some center left voters and he has access to bundlers with lots of cash. However, Mitt is also not trusted by conservatives and libertarians because he is more of a “process” guy than a true believer in small government. Conservatives elected George Bush and got new entitlements and increased spending, they are smarting from that betrayal and being much more cautious regarding who they throw their weight behind. My colleague, Blaknsam, writes about this in much better detail.
This brings me to Herman Cain. He has been rising steadily on the strength of a consistent message and a well articulated vision. He has a powerful personal story of rising from abject poverty to become a successful businessman. He has twice turned around failing organizations, which would seem to be a required skill for chief executive of the United States at this point and he has loyal Tea Party support. I would think the media would be looking at him to have a real shot but instead they ignored him initially the way they consistently ignore Ron Paul. Perhaps they assume he is not going to get the nomination anyway so he is not worth any serious airtime. Fair enough I guess, but then something strange happened. Herman Cain became the leader of the pack operationally and the media responded by announcing his candidacy essentially over.
Cain finally broke into the national conversation when he won the Florida straw poll. Winning a straw poll does not actually mean that much but it does generate free headlines. Cain deftly used those headlines to his advantage and starting selling himself directly to newly interested voters. He went into the most recent Republican debate as the man to watch but the story in the media was basically that a serious challenge from Cain would help Romney sharpen his campaign skills for the general election against Obama. Romney was still the “presumptive” nominee.
During the debate Romney turned in a solid performance by not making an errors and not letting Perry drag him down into a mud fight. The rest of the candidates took turns ganging up on Cain so that they could be seen as the one who will really challenge Mitt Romney. After the debate most of the pundits announced that since everyone on the stage took turns beating up on Cain his campaign was now over. I did not understand the connection and apparently neither did the voters because recent polls show Cain leading the pack in Iowa despite having almost no ground operation. Cain also surged ahead of Obama in a head to head poll 43% – 41%. This is within the margin of error but it is still significant.
Much of Romney’s appeal is his argument that even if he is not a full throated conservative, he is the most conservative candidate that can win the general election against Obama. These new numbers allow Cain to question this claim. Cain also made a splash with his 9-9-9 tax reform plan. Even those who question some of his math acknowledge that the U.S. tax code has become a complicated Christmas tree of giveaways and goodies for favored businesses and political cronies combined and system of rewards and punishments for behavior that government seeks to encourage or discourage. There is still a long way to go and getting out the vote in the primaries is essential to garnering the nomination so this contest is still far from over. For my part however I think the writing is on the wall, Cain is the front runner as far as the voters are concerned and once the primaries start, it is the opinion of the voters and not the pundits that will matter.