Herman Cain pulled off a shocking upset victory in Florida’s Presidency 5 Straw Poll on Saturday. The Georgia businessman won more votes than the Republican primary's frontrunners -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- combined.
The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO captured 37 percent of the vote, while Perry took 15 percent and Romney took 14 percent.
“Folks, this is what you call momentum,” Cain said in a video released minutes after the results were announced. “The Herman Cain Train is picking up steam.”
The tally was also good news for Romney, who came in just 1 point behind Perry after weeks of trying to recapture the front-runner status he maintained during the early part of the race. And unlike Romney, Perry actively campaigned for the straw poll.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released a week ago had Cain at just 5 percent, trailing Perry’s 31 percent and Romney’s 24 percent.
“It shows you something. Florida is important,” said Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). “The road to the White House is right through Florida.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) walked away from Florida’s straw poll with 11 percent of the vote, while 10 percent picked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) all garnered less than 10 percent.
Cain’s success came at Perry’s exprense. Perry had been widely expected to win the poll; the question had been by what margin he would beat Romney and the others.
But Perry’s failure to win over Florida Republicans on economic policy created an inroads for Cain, who spent much of the last weeks promoting his “9-9-9” plan to lower personal and corporate income taxes and institute a single-rate, national sales tax.
“Floridians and voters nationally want a candidate who is clear on the issues and talks honestly about the future, not someone who takes multiple sides of an issue and changes views every election season,” Perry said in a statement after the winner was announced. “Today’s vote demonstrates that Floridians are energized and ready to help get America working again.”
For Bachmann, it marked yet another sign that her campaign had lost its steam, following weeks of dwindling poll numbers and a debate about the effects of the HPV vaccine that hurt her credibility. Of the eight candidates on the ballot, Bachmann came in last - just 40 of the more than 2,500 who cast votes in the straw poll chose her.
The straw poll was not expected to substantially reorganize candidate rankings in the race – especially because voters in straw polls tend to support the candidate they would ideally like to see in the White House, as opposed to the candidate they think strategically has the best shot at beating the other party.
The Florida poll, however, has a solid record predicting presidential races. Every winner of the P5 poll has gone on to win the GOP nomination, although during the last presidential race, the state didn’t hold the poll.
Florida is also a crucial battleground for Republicans, and the state’s 29 electoral votes make it central to both parties’ 2012 strategies. The state is also flirting with moving its primary up to February, which would increase its influence in the nominating process.
Success in the straw poll helps candidates make the argument that they can be competitive in the state against President Obama, who won there against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 by less than 3 points.
All the major candidates appeared on the straw poll ballot, but Romney and Bachmann did not officially compete or aggressively campaign. That gave them an opportunity to downplay their expected loss to Perry and to focus resources on states where they would be better able to compete – Iowa for Bachmann and New Hampshire for Romney.
Before voting started, both Perry and Romney had already left Florida. But other candidates who remained in the Sunshine State had a chance to make their final pitches Saturday afternoon before delegates.
“Barack Obama has been the best food stamp president in history,” said Gingrich, working to focus voters’ minds on the contrasts between himself and Obama instead of him and the other GOP candidates who are dwarfing him in the polls.
“I would like to be the best paycheck president in history,” he said.
Bachmann has touted her win at an August straw poll in Ames, Iowa, as evidence of the momentum behind her candidacy, but Perry announced he was running the same day of the Iowa poll and has eclipsed her in the polls ever since.
Delegates who voted in the Florida poll were carefully screened by Republican Party of Florida – unlike the Iowa poll, where a candidate’s ability to mobilize grassroots support and bus in supporters from across the state is central to his or her success.
The straw poll capped a frenzied week of political activity for the Republican hopefuls, including meetings of the Conservative Political Action Conference and a Fox News/Google debate.
Cain offered both specifics on his tax plan and personal details during that debate to bolster his argument that he could best lead the country out of the mess he says Obama has created. He mentioned having Stage 4 colon cancer detected in 2006 and said he would have been dead had the Affordable Care Act pushed through Congress by Obama been in effect then.
“I was able to get the necessary CAT scan tests, go to the necessary doctors, get a second opinion, get chemotherapy, go -- get surgery, recuperate from surgery, get more chemotherapy in a span of nine months,” Cain said. “If we had been under Obamacare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan that would have delayed by treatment.”
Social Security – an issue of high importance to Florida’s large contingent of senior citizens – became the political ball that candidates batted back and forth, alternatively claiming it needs tweaks to ensure solvency or fundamental alterations to reduce the federal government’s role.
Perry’s opponents have used his remarks from an earlier debate calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme to make the case to seniors that their benefits aren’t safe under his watch.
“We have to make it very, very clear that Social Security is a responsibility of the federal government, not the state governments, that we're going to have one plan, and we're going to make sure that it's fiscally sound and stable,” Romney said.
The attention turns now to Michigan, where Republicans attending the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference will cast votes in another straw poll. The results of that poll are scheduled to be announced Sunday morning.
This post was updated at 6:40 p.m.