Are Pundits Underestimating Herman Cain?

Would Republicans really be crazy enough to nominate Herman Cain?

With Herman Cain continuing to post strong showings in state and national polls, and both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney going wildly off message this week for different reasons, we’re starting to get the inevitable barrage of analysis pieces wondering if we’ve all been underestimating the Cain phenomenon. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Cain simply cannot last, that even in the modern era failing to run a traditional on-the-ground campaign in states like Iowa is a fatal flaw. It’s also generally accepted under this wisdom that, in the end, a candidate like Cain whose appeal is so clearly based on personal charisma rather than an in depth, or even cursory, understanding of the issues, will fail to grab the level of support needed to win a major party Presidential nomination. But, is it possible that the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Nate Silver got the ball rolling earlier this week in The New York Times by telling his readers that Cain is such an outlier that he’s not sure it’s possible to predict what :

The fact that Mr. Cain has made it this far with such apparently weak fundamentals — we’re less than 10 weeks away from the Iowa caucuses — is itself remarkable. It implies that there is either something fundamentally unusual about this year’s Republican nomination process, or perhaps that some sort of “new normal” has been established and that the old rules of how you win a nomination no longer carry as much weight.

Most of you, however, are interested in what will happen to Mr. Cain from here on out — can he actually win? What is an analyst to do when he encounters an outlier like this?

Well, I don’t know what he should do. This gets at something of the distinction that the economist Frank H. Knight once made between risk and uncertainty. To boil Mr. Knight’s complicated thesis down into a sentence: risk, essentially, is measurable whereas uncertainty is not measurable.

In Mr. Cain’s case, I think we are dealing with an instance where there is considerable uncertainty. Not only do I not know how I would go about estimating the likelihood that Mr. Cain will win the Republican nomination — I’m not sure that there is a good way to do so at all.

In a follow-up post, Silver noted that dismissing the possibility that all the experts are wrong about Cain’s chances would be irresponsible in itself:

In short, while I think the conventional wisdom is probably right about Mr. Cain, it is irresponsible not to account for the distinct and practical possibility (not the mere one-in-a-thousand or one-in-a-million chance) that it might be wrong. The data we have on presidential primaries is not very rich, but there is abundant evidence from other fields on the limitations of expert judgment.

In May, George F. Will said it was certain that either Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels would win the Republican nomination. Mr. Will has gotten enough right over the years to have earned a mulligan or two. But experts who use terms like “never” and “certain” too often are playing Russian roulette with their reputations.

Slate’s John Dickerson echos Silver in some respects, pointing out that it is Cain’s status as an outsider that is sustaining him right now:

What allows Cain to sustain? (Besides easy rhymes?) He’s not from Washington. It comes up time and again in conversations with his supporters. Polls show his strength is with Tea Party voters who are the most anti-Washington in the electorate.

His “outsider” status—unharmed by stints as a chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve or as head of the national restaurant lobby—is also shielding him from criticism. Anyone who attacks his 9-9-9 plan is part of the permanent political class—the people who got us into this mess—trying to protect their advantage. Not being a politician also gives Cain a big gaffe cushion. His “joke” about an electrified border fence, his flirtation with trading hostages for Guantanamo Bay detainees, and his momentary moderation over whether abortion is a choice do not seem to have hurt him yet. Instead, they’re seen as proof that he’s not a polished pro like Romney. When Romney and Perry go after each other, Cain benefits by not being a bickering politician.

That’s all charming, but with a party so determined to beat President Obama, and with such good chances to do so, can this Cain flirtation blossom into something real? Won’t people start to focus on electability and turn to Romney? The answer (at least as Cain’s people see it): Electability may not be the liability the political elites might think. And actually, the political elites don’t think Cain has an electability problem: 74 percent of Republican insiders in a recent Huffington Post poll think Cain can beat Obama. (Danger Herman: When insiders validate an outsider strategy you should be nervous.)

For some Cain supporters the electability argument actually works in Cain’s favor, not for Romney. “We need an anti-Obama this time around,” says Jeffrey Jorgensen, the chairman of the Pottawattamie County (Iowa) Republican Party. “Gov. Romney would be a better candidate than John McCain or Bob Dole and a better president than George Herbert Walker Bush, but we need an anti-Obama this time, and governor Romney is not that candidate.”

Working even more in Cain’s favor, of course, is the state of the GOP field. Romney is doing respectably in the polls but he cannot seem to break out of that 27-23% range in the national polls and isn’t trusted by the conservative base. Michele Bachmann peaked over the summer but faded once Rick Perry entered the race, and then even more when she opened her mouth during the September debates. Ron Paul is simply too far out of step with the base of the Republican Party to be a realistic candidate for the base to rally around. Rick Perry has faded as people have developed the perception that there’s not much there there. Newt Gingrich has gotten positive marks for his debate performances, but carries around more baggage than any candidate in recent memory. And, Rick Santorum has been so much of a non-entity that it’s often easy to forget that he’s still in the race. Given all of that, it’s not surprising, in retrospect, that Cain has risen in the polls given the factors that Silver and Dickerson noted above.

Ace at Ace of Spades seems to admit, begrudgingly, that Cain could in fact win the nomination:

Cain could very well win the nomination, if people just want an angry old dude spouting dumbass crap as their nominee. Which is what I think the people actually want, and I’m sick of instructing them that maybe they should rest their Emotion Muscles a little bit and work out their Thinking Muscles some more.

They won’t do it.

Adding to Cain’s strength is that he’s already fallen once before, and risen again. That means that all the crap that caused him to fall — the fact that he didn’t know as much about Israel as the occasional talk-radio listener, despite having been a talk-radio host himself — has been decided by one third of the party to not matter at all. So it really doesn’t matter if he continues saying dumbass crap; as we’ve seen before, there’s a segment of the party that actually almost seems to like that, as some kind of “rebellion” against the intellectuals or something.

Point is, he can be nominated. People should start taking him very seriously — and I mean that for good and for ill. If you’re inclined towards him, well, you can draw succor from the idea he should be taken seriously.

If you’re inclined against him, you should take him seriously, and stop singing the song of the “experts” (who don’t know what they’re talking about) that he could never be nominated so why bother even thinking about it much at all?

Is it possible? Would Republicans really put their nomination in the hands of a man who has become best known for a tax plan that makes little economic sense and an appalling amount of ignorance about foreign policy? Would they really rally behind a candidate who continually gets hammered in head-to-head matchups against the President they claim they want to beat so much? As much as the amateur political analyst in me says no, I can’t help forget that it wasn’t all that long ago that Republicans seemed willing to rally behind Sarah Palin despite her own obvious deficiencies, record breaking unfavorability, and the fact that she too would have been trounced by President Obama in a head-to-head General Election matchup. If they were crazy enough to consider that laughable proposition, why wouldn’t they be crazy enough to back Herman Cain?

Maybe this will all be academic in a month or two. Maybe Rick Perry will revive a campaign that some already seem to want to declare dead in the water. Maybe the right will finally, albeit reluctantly, make peace with Mitt Romney and move forward toward the General Election. Maybe those things will happen, but it seems nearly as likely that the Cain momentum will continue and that that GOP will find itself stuck with a candidate who is unprepared to be President as their standard bearer. It would be totally crazy, it would mean near-certain defeat in November, but given the political climate this year, it might not be entirely unlikely.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:


  2. Eric Florack says:

    Yes, unquestionably, as they do with any candidate who is not either a Democrat or a member of the GOP castratti.

  3. ponce says:

    Would Republicans really be crazy enough to nominate Herman Cain?

    I think so.

    He and Ron Paul are the only likable Republican candidates.

    Cain reminds me of Han Solo: “Never tell me the odds!”

  4. Barb Hartwell says:

    To underestimate him is foolish,since all the GOP candidate have so little worth.

  5. PJ says:

    The rise and fall of [candidate who isn’t Romney] isn’t about [candidate who isn’t Romney], it’s about Romney.

    The role of [candidate who isn’t Romney] has by now been played by Palin, Huckabee, Daniels, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain.
    Thing is when [candidate who isn’t Romney] falls, Romney isn’t getting their votes. The next [candidate who isn’t Romney] do.

    And that’s why this really is about Romney.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    You forgot Trump and Christie. They were also not Romney.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Come to think of it, I’m also not Romney. I can be as rude as Christie, as hair-challenged as Trump, as manipulative as Palin, as glib as Cain and . . . after sufficient alcohol . . . as dumb as Perry.

    Okay, that would be a race between alcohol poisoning and Perry-level imbecility, but I’d probably survive.

    Me for Not Romney!

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    George Will apparently has a Romney hit piece on Sunday.

    Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable, he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate: Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the tea party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming. Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from ‘data’ … Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?

  9. michael reynolds says:

    a recidivist reviser of his principles

    That is so wrong!

    You have to have principles to begin with before you can revise them.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: Good one Michael!
    My take on it is that Will is admitting that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

  11. MM says:

    On this day in 2007, Giuliani was the front runner followed by Thompson and a John McCain who was widely considered to be in serious trouble.

    Outside of politics junkies, nobody is paying any real attention to these people yet.

  12. Wayne says:

    Would anyone be crazy and foolish enough to vote for asinine candidate like Romney? Who is Dem-lite, shallow, incompetent, who has nothing but platitude plans, and stands for nothing? He can’t ever seem to rise in the polls beyond his core supporters. He has similar number as Cain in many head to head matchups against Obama. This with him being well known and running for president for 6 years. Romney could very well win the nomination, if people just want an angry old dude spouting dumbass crap as their nominee and who is just another slick politician that will say anything to get elected. Would Republicans really put their nomination in the hands of a man who has become best known as the founding father of Obamacare?

    That was so easy to do. No wonder people like using that technique. Spout off a good deal of insults and ignore any contradictory facts that you don’t like. If you disagree with me you are an idiot.

    News flash, people are not buying your B.S. any longer.

  13. Curtis says:

    I think you hit it right on the head when you said Cain’s ascendancy is based on the state of the field. What happens when you have an election that no candidate can win? We are getting into one-hand-clapping mysticism about now.

    I thought Balz’s take at the Washington Post was interesting. Cain had very high marks for charisma and was well-liked, but when asked if they would be comfortable with him as president, not a hand went up. I tend to agree with those who say he has no realistic chance; I don’t see him crossing that threshold with a critical mass of voters.

    I must admit to be completely confused by this primary season.

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    Look out for Newt!

  15. Dustin says:

    We’ll see. At this point in 2007 Giuliani was enjoying his polling numbers too, and then the attacks got tougher and flaws in his strategy started hurting him.

  16. We seem to only be hearing from people dumb enough for Fox News and other cable news networks to want to talk to. In other words: this is a small sample size of largely insane people.

  17. Liberty60 says:

    Would the GOP be crazy enough to nominate Cain?

    In a hot minute they would.

    The sole animating goal in the conservative world right now is whatever is the opposite of what Obama wants, updated daily.

    That Heritage health care plan we proposed? WE HATE IT!

    A muscular TSA as a part of the GWOT? WE HATE IT!

    Balanced budget? WE HATE IT!

    Support for Libyan rebels? WE HATE IT! wait, WE LOVE IT! hold on…WE HATE IT! er…stay tuned.

  18. jan says:


    I must admit to be completely confused by this primary season.

    I second that comment. Cain’s continuing high polling baffles me. So many problems and so few apparently good candidates to deal with them.

  19. Pete says:
  20. sam says:


    Cain’s continuing high polling baffles me.

    I’ll bet it does.

  21. ponce says:

    Cain’s continuing high polling baffles me.

    Who is your favorite Republican candidate, jan?

  22. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I’d vote for you for “not Romney.” I think you’d be an excellent “not Romney.” Go for it! The fact that you’re not a Republican will only make the “conversion” more miraculous to the faithful. They’ll see “the hand of The LORD” in it for sure!

  23. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @jan: On a more serious note than my previous post above, I think we are missing a point that is important about Cain. He is, essentially, Sarah Palin–except that he is male and willing to run.

    Many of my friends stateside asked me what the take on Sarah Palin was in Korea at the time of her VP selection. In general, Koreans didn’t care much for Palin, but it was largely based on her gender. (A while earier, people had said about Park Geun hye that while she was a brilliant politician and GNP leader, she was unqualified to be president because “she can’t get elected, she’s a woman, a woman can’t be president of Korea.) The other thing that alienated Koreans was that they were surprised that Americans would consider someone as ignorant as Palin seemed.

    For my take, Palin reminded me of many of my stateside students in the little mill town where I was teaching in a two-year college. Many of my students, and their parents, and the fellow citizens were aware that they are ignorant of the world around them and, ironically, proud of that ignorance (in fact, one of my students wrote a compelling essay about his anger at not being able to survive economically anymore without going back to school). Sarah Palin, and now Herman Cain, are able to tap into their world view and strike chords that resonate with that camp in the GOP.

    Can Cain win? Don’t know. But the people who are supporting him may not be doing it in spite of his ignorance.

  24. jan says:


    Who is your favorite Republican candidate, jan?

    I’m not thrilled about any of the candidates, all the R’s and the 1 D. I’ve always voted though, so I probably would vote for Romney if I was to do it today. My main concerns for the next 4 years are jobs and the economy, and Romney has a lot of private sector business experience. However, IMO it’s a poor selection we have to chose from…..

  25. jan says:

    @Just nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I just can’t help thinking that on the way to his book signings, Herman Cain suddenly hit pay dirt with his populace rhetoric and suddenly became one of the leaders of the pack. I do think this has surprised him as much as anybody else. But, he is now rising to the occasion, and taking this lurch to the front row seriously.

    While, my biggest issues do deal with economics, ironically with Cain I have absolutely no confidence in him being able to handle foreign affairs. It would be akin to putting a 10 year behind the wheel of a big car.

    Anyway, I just keep putting hand to forehead and wondering, “why?”

  26. Murray says:

    In any case Cain entered the Bad Lip Reading Hall of Fame

  27. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @jan: As to why, have you checked the other blogs and media sources that you cite from in your posts here? Maybe there’s a clue to be found in those places.

    Meh…prob’ly not.

  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    Romney is a weredonkey…..He sucks….

    The thing with Cain is that he is a T.E.A. Party favorite, he has been for a long while, he listens and he has plans…He is gaining ground with the bible based Christians…

    Like I told you before…

    But you no listen…

  29. john personna says:

    I don’t think Cain has much personal charisma at all. His attraction is that he stands up and says things that the far right would like to say themselves, even if they are “not PC.”

    Where the definition of “not PC” is “not actually true.”

    Take for instance “the OWS just don’t try” meme.

  30. john personna says:

    (They love Cain saying things that they really know in their hearts are not true.)

  31. jan says:

    @Just nutha ig’rant cracker:

    As to why, have you checked the other blogs and media sources that you cite from in your posts here?

    Perhaps, the ‘clue’ you imply is that Cain is being pushed and promoted….. As I see it, Cain is considered the only real, viable social conservative left standing in the field. Although Bachmann, Santorum technically remain in the race, their numbers cannot be revived. Cain, however, is the only one showing sudden promise of carrying the values and issues, purists on the right, have considered sidelined in other presidential races, especially in ’08 when McCain ran. While I don’t necessarily diss those issues, they are not, IMO, ones that should carry a candidate to the highest office in the land. However, I am more pragmatically inclined, rather than being driven purely by either party’s social agenda.

  32. Jay says:

    The pundits are grossly overestimating Herman Cain; his poll numbers are 10-15% inflated.

    Given that Cain’s poll numbers derive from older GOP voters, and many people who were until recently (falsely) castigated as “lily white” (or worse) Tea Party members, how with the “Wilder Effect” or “Bradley Effect” influence actual election day ballots for the Cain book tour?

  33. jan says:


    Who do you think is the most viable republican candidate?

  34. Pete says:

    @jan: Newt.