The whys and wherefores of Cain

Herman Cain’s improbable run-up to co-front-runner status in the presidential race might not last, but it’s worth pondering its origins and meaning. How has this wholly unexpected surge occurred? And what must the Romney camp take away from this to win the day?

First, businessman Cain’s support reflects a direct response to incumbent failure. The economy needs help, and we find ourselves led by a man who seems to know virtually nothing about job creation and the business world. It’s logical that we would look around for someone who has genuine corporate credentials, who has a successful businessman’s air and bearing. Yes, occasionally Cain lapses into an Old South preaching style, complemented by Jesse Jackson-esque rhyming, but he’s best when he’s the community banker telling you why your loan application has been denied or the franchisee upselling you on the advantages of the large pizza over the medium.

Second, I think Cain’s race is a factor, even if the candidate might cringe at the thought. Something really important happened in 2008. America finally leaped over a high wall of race to elect a minority candidate. There was a collective satisfaction in this, even among Americans who stuck with the Republicans. It seemed to please everyone that claims of institutionalized racism would no longer stand in the way of race relations. After all, if a black man is elected president, complaints about smaller stuff would just be whining. So most everyone, in some form or fashion, found some satisfaction in Obama’s inauguration. But then it started going badly pretty quickly. Republicans who voted for Obama, or at least appreciated the symbolic advances his election provided, suddenly felt sort of silly, as if they were being punished for having “done the right thing,” as they saw it. Thereafter, when it became clear Obama was incompetent, Cain came along. He gives the once-Obama-sympathizing Republicans a do-over, a chance to validate their anti-racism perspective while getting a better candidate. So, in a way, Cain benefits tangibly from Obama’s failures in a way a Mitt Romney could never do.

Third, Cain is benefiting from the simple elegance of his 9-9-9 plan, something that should please the one-time math major. All through grad school, I was imbued with the notion that the best solution to a math-modeling problem is always the most elegant one, with elegance being defined by simplicity. With the economy in a mess, voters want to know there is a plan that will fix things, setting the economy straight. To achieve assurance that a plan is feasible, it must be simple enough for voters to absorb. If the plan is 250 pages in length and has several hundred moving parts, too many Americans cannot get their minds around it as a truly workable concept. I would guess that a lot of voters want to see an unpretentious plan, yet one that seems profoundly different from all the marginal stuff Obama and other politicians are throwing out there. This is the genius of 9-9-9 from the perspective of public reception. Simple and different. The dorks who start challenging the precise numbers, like those saying it should be 9.1 percent, just don’t get it. Part of the salesmanship is getting customers to call in their orders. We’ll upsell the price after the phone rings. It happens all the time, and consumers are aware of it. But let’s start by getting them dialing the phone, placing an order.

The Romney campaign should be paying attention. Leading products and services always steal ideas from the up-and-comers. Romney should spend far more time talking about his business exploits than his days as governor. We actually want a corporatist for a change. Romney should also push simpler, more-elegant issue plans.

David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.