Friday, October 28, 2011

Herman Cain and the art of levitation

Herman Cain can claim a number of impressive accomplishments in his professional life: former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman in Kansas City, United States Navy ballistics analyst, author, musician, gospel singer, former CEO of a major fast-food chain, syndicated talk-radio host.

To that list he can add another laurel: Resulting from his current bid for the U.S. presidency, Cain is clearly the recipient of a bachelor’s degree in political levitation. There’s not much else to explain his head-scratchingly lofty showings in recent opinion polls of likely voters.

These polls reflect, like nothing else could, just how unsettled the Republican field for the nomination remains, and just how hungry the Republican party is for a unifying force, any unifying force, to emotionally and philosophically galvanize the masses and wed them to the GOP banner in 2012 — a task that right now has the same degree of difficulty as herding feral cats.

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There’s still a deep reservoir of reservation about Herman Cain, much chin-pulling among analysts, the mainstream media and party leaders. They’re polite enough but still prone to look at him sideways; his unique trajectory into the political conversation is something they can’t get their heads around. Cain didn’t get in this thing the usual way.

So maybe it makes sense that he’s not getting the usual results — that a big slice of the American electorate, Republicans ready for a break with their party’s ugly reflexive combativeness and the usual cast of characters, gives him the benefit of the doubt. Not once but again and again and again.

In the CBS News/New York Times poll released Oct. 25, the top five preferences among Republican primary voters were Cain with 25 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 21 percent; former House Speaker and presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex Newt Gingrich, 10 percent; libertarian darling Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 8 percent; and the floundering Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose commanding lock on third place has given way to something less — trailing Paul, with 6 percent.

A Qunnipiac University poll released on Oct. 26 seems to confirm that the same few names are gaining the early traction in Ohio voters’ minds: Cain placed first with 28 percent, followed by Romney with 23 percent, Paul with 8 percent, Gingrich with 7 percent and Perry with 4 percent. That handsome lead for Cain has a little extra mustard on it, given the poll’s margin of error of 2.7 percent.

"There is a zero-sum relationship between how well Cain and Perry do. A large chunk of the new Cain support is coming from former supporters of the Texas governor," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

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There’s another metric of Cain’s current blazing success; YouTube hits tell part of the story. According to a count reported by CNN on Friday, Cain’s current campaign ad (more about which later) got 946,736 viewers as of that night, compared to 118,095 viewers of the Romney campaign ad, and 105,690 views for the video for the Perry campaign.

And this comes after similarly strong showings in recent straw polls.

But for all this, for all the furious velocity he’s had into the popular imagination, there’s cracks already turning up. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from Oct. 26 finds that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the 9-9-9 economic recovery plan that’s become Cain’s trademark. Fifty percent of Republicans felt the same way.

That, right there, is the problem with such levitation as Cain’s. Much of what sustains this kind of loft into the political culture is experience and achievable ideas; without them, the zero-gravity candidate comes back to earth, eventually and fast.

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One aspect of getting serious is all about the message, and it’s here that Cain the political iconoclast reveals himself. What lit up the blogosphere this week, what got the punditburo’s knickers twisted was the release of the latest Cain campaign viral video. In the ad, already widely parodied on YouTube, Cain campaign manager Mark Block, a smoker, stands outside, looks into the camera and extols the virtues of Cain and his campaign and how it resonates with America. While smoking a cigarette. Not cupping one in his hand sub rosa but taking a drag with visible relish.

“We have run a campaign like no one has ever seen,” Block says. “But then, America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. We need you to get involved, because together we can do this — we can take this country back.”

Gets weirder still. With the music swelling (“I am America”), the video dissolves to a still image of Cain’s face. At least it looks like a still photograph. But over the course of about nine seconds, Cain’s face morphs from impassive to smiling, the candidate sporting a slow-motion Cheshire-cat grin.

WTF was that? The ad, seen by millions on YouTube and on the Cain campaign Web site, amounts to a non-message message. A campaign jefe speaks in broad strokes and bromides about the boss, who flashes his pearly whites, but what’s delivered says more about the ad and its style than it says about the person behind the ad, and his vision for leading the country. It’s too bizarre by half, but the ad performs another, maybe primary function: like a two-by-four to the head, it gets your attention. So what will the Cain campaign do now that everyone’s looking? When does Cain 2012 cross that Rubicon from style to substance?

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Another part of getting serious is all about the money. On Friday, Smoking Man Block told CNN that the Cain campaign has raised “over $3 million” since the start of October, that to go with the estimated $5 million raised by the campaign through the end of September.

Thanks to that war chest, the Cain campaign has operations “in all 50 states,” Smoking Man told CNN. If that’s true, it’s an astonishingly effective deployment of campaign funds. Think of it: people on the ground in every state in the nation, plus production of campaign ads, airtime, travel, salaries and all the rest, done for somewhere between $5 million and $8 million? What are they paying those campaign workers “in all 50 states” with — all the pizza they can eat?

But that may not be the challenge it appears to be. In politics and in life, relationships are everything. Ryan J. Foley of The Associated Press reported on Oct. 16 that
Cain's campaign manager and a number of aides have worked for Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, the advocacy group founded with support from billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which lobbies for lower taxes and less government regulation and spending. Cain credits a businessman who served on an AFP advisory board with helping devise his "9-9-9" plan to rewrite the nation's tax code. And his years of speaking at AFP events have given the businessman and radio host a network of loyal grassroots fans. 
AFP tapped Cain as the public face of its "Prosperity Expansion Project," and he traveled the country in 2005 and 2006 speaking to activists who were starting state-based AFP chapters from Wisconsin to Virginia. Through his AFP work he met Mark Block, a longtime Wisconsin Republican operative hired to lead that state's AFP chapter in 2005 as he rebounded from an earlier campaign scandal that derailed his career. 
Block and Cain sometimes traveled together as they built up AFP: Cain was the charismatic speaker preaching the ills of big government; Block was the operative helping with nuts and bolts. 
When President Barack Obama's election helped spawn the tea party, Cain was positioned to take advantage. He became a draw at growing AFP-backed rallies, impressing activists with a mix of humor and hard-hitting rhetoric against Obama's stimulus, health care and budget policies. 
Block is now Cain's campaign manager. Other aides who had done AFP work were also brought on board.
Maybe now we know what Cain’s grin is about. He’s got cards he’s not showing. His pockets may be deeper than we think.

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Herman Cain’s ascendancy circumvents the traditional political narrative; this genuinely self-made man has parlayed his singular biography into a run for the presidency at least as serious as anyone else in the current field of contenders, and more serious than most of them. That much has been refreshing for everyone.

And Cain’s rise also deeply complicates one of the more cherished Republican memes: exclusivity.

With his diverse resumé, Cain is a living refutation of business as usual. With his inspiring personal African American up-by-bootstraps narrative, Cain calls on the Republican party to live up to the true meaning of its creed. For a party with a history of xenophobic policies and thinking vis-à-vis race and the evolving national demographic, for a group long addicted to its own generally unchanging identity, Cain is a shit disturber.

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Cain is making the most of the public’s fascination with him. But the focus is just beginning. Even while his latest ad positions him as One of The People, his connections with the Koch cartel could undercut his populist image with rank-and-file Republicans who’ve got no use for crony capitalism — the same insider game that 2012 also-ran Rick Perry is accused of playing.

And there’s a deep sense of uncertainty among the Republican faithful. In the CBS/New York Times poll, fully 14 percent of poll respondents “don’t know” who they’ll back for the nomination. In the Quinnipiac poll, the Don’t Know crowd rises to 18 percent.

Herman Cain is getting popular about the same time he needs to start getting serious. What’s hanging in the balance for him and his still-quixotic bid for the nomination is how much and how well he’s able to do both between now and the primaries.

Image credits: Cain, Cain logo, Block: Cain 2012 campaign Web site. Polling snapshot: From Oct. 26 Quinnipiac University poll.

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