Understanding Cain

Sorry if I seem obsessed with Herman Cain, but he’s definitely the most interesting thing politically going on right now.  Far and away the best take I’ve read on the matter so far comes from Chait (I feel like this post should be required reading for journalists covering the campaign).  Longer excerpt than usual, but I kept on wanting to leave more of it:

The question of whether the Herman Cain sexual harassment story will hurt his presidential campaign sort of misses the point that there is no Herman Cain presidential campaign. There are certain things you do when you run for president. You try to raise a lot of money. Cain is not doing that. If you can’t raise a lot of money, you campaign heavily in early primary states, trying to get some early success that can snowball into later primaries. Cain isn’t doing that, either. You hire a staff of political operatives. You at least pretend to know something about world affairs. You try to attract as many people as possible to your events. Cain, by contrast, frequently charges admission.

Cain is executing a business plan. It’s an excellent plan. The plan involves Cain raising his profile as a conservative personality, which he can monetize through motivational speaking, book sales, talk shows, and other media. Cain’s selling point is that he’s a black conservative who can capitalize on the sense of white racial victimization that has mushroomed during the Obama era. Accordingly, Cain assures conservatives that they are not racist, as proven by their support for him. Indeed, it is the liberals who are racist, as evidenced by their opposition to Cain.

If Cain were campaigning to be president, the scandal would hurt him. Since he is instead campaigning to boost his profile, it will help him.

Cain is exploiting a loophole which allows a person to declare their candidacy for president, and then attract free media coverage and participate in nationally televised debates simply because the media can’t prove that they’re not really trying to win. The actual presidential candidates seem to understand this. That’s why they have spared him the vicious attacks that a putative front-runner might be expected to attract, and completely avoided jumping on the latest scandal. If they were worried about Cain winning the nomination, they would be using the issue to sow doubts about him with women and Republican elites concerned about electability.

Yep.  We’ve sort of had candidates like this before, but what seems to be quite different is Cain’s absurdly high standing in the polls and the media treating him like he’s a legitimate contender solely on the basis of these pools, when, as Chait points out, he’s not actually running for president.   Even with his big surge, he’s never even surpassed $10 (i.e., 10% chance of winning) on Intrade, where you actually have to put your money where your beliefs are.  It really is quite a fascinating phenomenon.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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