Cain defies political odds as campaign stands strong

Herman Cain has defied the political odds so far in the face of campaign adversity, and it looks as if he has the GOP’s conservative base to thank for it.

The last month of Cain’s presidential campaign has read like a textbook for how to doom a candidacy: having to deny allegations of sexual harassment, bungling important foreign-policy questions while saying he’s not “supposed to know anything” on the subject, releasing a bizarre Web ad and canceling an editorial board meeting with a key New Hampshire newspaper. 

And yet, in an Iowa State University poll released Thursday, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO remains the top choice of voters in the state, garnering nearly a quarter of voters. A Bloomberg News poll on Tuesday found him locked in a four-way tie for first among Iowa voters. He’s also maintained his top-tier status in most national polls and is fundraising at a record pace.

Undoubtedly, Cain’s bungles have slowed the momentum of his campaign and provided oxygen for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to reassert themselves in the race for the nomination. 

But none of the hits Cain has weathered have proven a fatal blow, and the evidence suggests that’s because conservatives are rallying around the beleaguered candidate.

In a poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post and ABC News, those who identified themselves as “strongly conservative” were far less likely to have an unfavorable opinion of Cain after the allegations of harassment surfaced. Half of Republicans still saw Cain positively, versus slightly more than a third who viewed him negatively.

“People see him as a true conservative candidate and see him as principled, and people are hoping for that,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. “Through history we’ve been forced to accept some candidates that aren’t true principled conservatives — they might be principled or might be conservative, but rarely both.”

Meckler says some in the Tea Party have rallied around Cain because they are upset with what they see as a history of vilification of conservative candidates by the media.

“Look at the way Sarah Palin was vilified — the things that were put out there by the media that were demonstrably untrue became memes and became part of the popular consciousness,” Meckler said.

“There’s a double standard that exists. When you have a conservative candidate that has a gaffe, they are consistently and constantly abused for that gaffe. When a candidate on the left does that, they are not.”

James McCormick, chairman of the Iowa State University political science department, said his polling finds that Cain’s support remained unchanged even as the sexual harassment allegations emerged and dominated the news cycle.

“He stayed remarkably steady, even during these allegations,” McCormick said. “Part of it is the freshness of his message, the fact that he’s an outsider, he’s articulate and speaks plainly — that’s attractive to people in Iowa.”

Only 30 percent of those surveyed in a Bloomberg poll released Monday said that allegations of sexual harassment would prevent them from voting for a candidate.

And while Cain’s support in the ISU poll cuts across demographic groups, he does particularly well with self-identified Tea Party members, capturing nearly a third of those voters.

McCormick also said some of Cain’s gaffes — particularly those on foreign policy — were less likely to resonate in the polls, as “a lot of the public is not that fluent on a lot of these foreign-policy issues.”

Cain’s flouting of campaign traditions — including the customary sit-down with the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader — might also be less important in a changed political environment.

“Most of the folks I know that are engaged in the process couldn’t care less about those traditions,” Meckler said. “It just doesn’t matter to us. We’re looking around for a confident candidate … Whether someone chooses to meet with the Manchester editorial board, I don’t really care.”

J. Anne Selzer, who surveys Iowa voters for The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg polls, said Cain’s lasting support can also be explained by reluctance by those in the state to rush to judgment.

“They don’t mind waiting, they haven’t landed firmly on a candidate, they’re not bolting on this candidate,” Selzer said. “In general, I think Iowans are waiting to see what the deal is.”

Selzer also said Cain is still benefiting from a reservoir of good will.

“He was popular before the sexual harassment charges were made … he has shown himself to be an energetic and enthusiastic speaker, and people like that when they hear him,” Selzer said. “He presents ideas in a way that he’s not exactly a policy wonk, so he seems more approachable.”

But, Selzer cautioned, “There’s a lot of campaigning left to come.

“Candidates start taking things more seriously now, spending more time in the state.”