Herman Cain and the “Credible” Candidates

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In the Des Moines Register’s poll released Saturday surveying Iowa Republicans’ preferences for their party’s presidential nomination, former Godfather’s pizza CEO Herman Cain came in third behind Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. If you’ve been following media odds-making, that ranking may surprise you. But it’s only the latest in a series of favorable showings for Cain, a political novice who’s still treated as a marginal presidential candidate. It’s worth asking: What makes a credible candidate?

Nearly two-thirds of the 400 Iowa Republicans polled expressed having a “favorable” or “mostly favorable” view of Cain, compared to about 17% who said they have an “unfavorable” opinion. Ten percent of the poll’s respondents said Cain would be their first choice for President – ahead of candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman with more credibility in the press. Earlier this month, Cain and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tied for second-place, behind Romney, in the nonpartisan Public Policy Polling’s survey of Iowa voters. Cain’s popularity is surging: The percentage of Republicans who are aware of him has nearly doubled to 43% since March, and is expected to grow in the Gallup poll scheduled to be released Tuesday.

In many ways, Cain’s performance makes sense. For starters, he is a charismatic Tea Party sermonizer, who can rally a crowd and claim the outsider’s mantle perhaps even better than Bachmann can — Cain has the unique credential of never actually holding elected office. (That isn’t really due to a lack of effort though: His 2004 U.S. Senate bid failed.) Like Bachmann, Cain’s social conservatism resonates with Iowa Republicans, 58% of whom told the Register survey that a candidates’ support for governments extending civil unions to gay and lesbian couples would be a “deal-killer.” In recent months, Cain has said he believes “homosexuality is a sin,” and a “choice.” Cain’s inspiring rise from humble Georgia beginnings to one of corporate America’s top corner-suites is something out of a Republican fairy tale.

Then there is the novelty of Cain’s race. “Republicans love cheering an African American conservative candidate,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Supporting Cain and the handful of other black candidates, Sabato says, “allows Republicans to say, ‘you see, our policies have nothing to do with race. It’s about ideology.’”

But so far, the press has not deemed Cain a credible candidate. His supporters were livid at CBS News on Sunday after Bob Schieffer, the host of Face the Nation, omitted mentioned of Cain in a report on the Register poll. Schieffer highlighted Romney and Bachmann, but also Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, whom Cain outperformed. There have been few in-depth profiles of Cain, like recent 6,000-word opuses from the New York Times Magazine and Esquire on Jon Huntsman. Meanwhile, one of the few substantive Cain profiles was a Bloomberg Businessweek piece headlined, “Chewing Over Herman Cain’s Pizza Past.”

This disparity is partly due to what makes a candidate “plausible” within political party – and journalism – establishments. “Huntsman… has all the hallmarks of a serious candidate: Money, telegenic looks, a solid grasp of the issues, a track record of political success and an ability to articulate a message,” wrote Charles Mathesian in Politico, making the case for Huntsman hype. But while Cain has been rising in the polls, Huntsman barely registers. A mere 2% of Iowa Republicans surveyed by the Register said he would be their first choice for President.

In almost any campaign, a candidate must appeal to a diversity of constituencies. On that score, Cain may be too far to the right; his lack of experience and proclivity for controversial remarks may prove fatal liabilities. Cain could be upstaged, especially if Rick Perry or Sarah Palin enter the race. But media buzz in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses can determine a candidate’s trajectory. And recent polling demonstrates Cain should be a credible part of the conversation.