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Herman Cain’s poll numbers

Last week I made a mistake — one for which I often chide others. My examination of the Republican presidential field was poli-centric, focusing on those candidates with a background in politics at the expense of someone who is clearly doing the right thing and doing things right, despite having never held public office — Herman Cain.

Having never held office, Cain is too easily dismissed by the commentariat and by Washington operatives mesmerized by political résumés. Is Cain for real?

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Straw polls are often worse than meaningless, crossing the line to downright misleading. Only three GOP presidential aspirants bothered to grace the Tea Party Summit in Las Vegas with their presence, and, not surprisingly, were rewarded with first, second and third place. But it was Cain, the guy with no political background, who came in first, besting pols like Tim Pawlenty and far-right favorite Ron Paul. It was at least a tribute to Cain’s ability to deliver a compelling speech. 

Cain came out on top in similar exercises from New Hampshire to Washington state, from Iowa to Arizona.

As a professional, it’s embarrassing to be giving space to these unscientific samplings, and it must be noted that the likes of Rick Santorum, Paul and Mitt Romney have also emerged victorious in other straw polls. 

In fact, I wouldn’t be mentioning them, or even Cain, were it not for some more legitimate polls that reveal underlying strengths for the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and talk show host.

Pew’s national polling found Cain known by half as many GOP voters as Mitt Romney (though only 8 percent fewer than Pawlenty), but among those who knew him, more said there was a good chance Cain would earn their vote than made that statement about any other candidate. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll put Cain well back in the field, though only six points behind leader Rudy Giuliani, five points behind Romney and three points behind Sarah Palin. Gallup had Cain in the middle of the pack, but ahead of candidates like Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Pawlenty.

While unlike straw polls these are scientific, at this stage of the race national polls have more entertainment than predictive value, but they reveal an unknown holding his own in a closely bunched Republican field.

As I suggested last week, the real test is the early states, which have the ability to make and break contenders in a serial election process. Here, there is precious little evidence, reducing me to citing the kind of robo-polls I regularly rail against, polls that are especially unlikely to be accurate in a low-turnout situation like Iowa. All those caveats stated, PPP’s recent Iowa poll had Cain tied with uncertain candidate Palin for second place in the first contest, behind Romney, who is ambivalent about even competing in the Hawkeye State. 

One other state poll is worth noting because two GOP candidates call Georgia home and are fairly well-known among Republicans there. That poll found Cain not only leading, but besting Georgia’s other favorite son, Newt Gingrich, by 2 to 1 — suggesting Cain has the potential to catch on as Republicans in early states get to know him.

Could Cain really win Iowa and skyrocket into contention? The evidence is thin, but he is a leader in a sea of managers, an exciting speaker in a field of bland, a businessman who stands out in a gaggle of politicians. Stranger things have happened.

Of course, his support for creating a whole new national sales tax, which will add 23 percent to the cost of everything we buy, will render him unelectable in the general. He could nevertheless make the GOP primaries and caucuses fun to watch, while perhaps goading other GOPers into supporting his career-ending tax plan.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.