To hold onto conservative support, that is.
Two items of note in Friday’s Washington Post. Jennifer Rubin wrote Herman Cain’s obituary, announcing the Republican presidential candidate’s “political demise.”
Yet the paper also published an ABC News/Washington Post poll of actual Republican voters. It found Cain at 23 percent, up seven points from October and in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney. A majority of respondents were not greatly concerned by the sexual harassment allegations against Cain, while only 39 percent disagreed.
Rumors of Cain’s political death may have been greatly exaggerated. Why hasn’t the steady drumbeat of criticism — and the slow drip of scandal-related news — taken its toll?
The frequently analogies to Clarence Thomas are inapt, but here is one difference that favors Cain: there is no Anita Hill. Even as the number of accusers grows, there are no names. The details are mostly under lock and key, protected by nondisclosure clauses in the settlement agreements. The specifics that have leaked out are attributed to anonymous sources, or have had to be corrected, or have involved Cain making women feel uncomfortable by asking them to put lemon in his tea.
At some point, the women’s names and possibly the whole story could well come out. Until then, the only identifiable victim is Cain. And while the Cain camp has generally not handled the controversy very well, they have made effective use of their victim status.
Conservative Republicans like Cain and want to believe him. They certainly believe the liberal media, and even elites in their own party, disdain conservatives and especially revile black conservatives.
While many of Rick Perry’s supporters headed for the hills when his campaign ran into trouble, Cain’s base will stick by him unless there is evidence to contradict his denials. Conservatives already showed a willingness to give Cain the benefit of the doubt when he appeared to make pro-choice arguments in a television interview.
Since the details remain murky, much of the criticism has focused on Cain’s inconsistent responses in media interviews. But many primary voters are more interested in the truth or falsity of the accusations than they are about how well his campaign team is able to spin them.
Perhaps Cain’s likeability will only take him so far and the poll numbers will change. New details could emerge that clarify and corroborate the women’s stories. Primary voters could get tired of hearing about this. Up to this point, conservatives sharing this fatigue have generally blamed the media. But they could eventually start taking it out on Cain.
Until there is real proof that any of this is happening, however, repeated establishment conservative predictions of Cain’s demise will widely be seen as the wishful thinking they mostly are. These pundits hope Republicans sour on Cain because the pundits themselves are now convinced the conservative businessman cannot beat Barack Obama.
Indeed, the general election would be a whole new ballgame. Reaching beyond the GOP primary electorate, Cain would not be able to count on the reservoir of goodwill that predisposes conservatives to give him the benefit of the doubt on sexual harassment, his tax plan, abortion, foreign policy, the TARP bailout, and a host of other issues.
Swing voters who are vaguely paying attention now will only be aware that Cain has been accused of inappropriate conduct and will have no strong biases toward believing the charges are untrue. Meanwhile, the flaws in his campaign operation that at the moment seem like Beltway minutiae could be mercilessly exposed in a confrontation with the president’s $1 billion reelection effort.
The problems that experts predicted for Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell failed to materialize among Republican voters, only to appear in full force during the fall campaign. The attacks on Palin and O’Donnell just seemed to improve their standing among rank-and-file conservatives.
So it may be with Cain. Professional conservatives, worried about disaster next year, could try to tear him down, only to diminish their own authenticity in the eyes of the conservative grassroots. Cain, whose underfunded campaign has already received a monetary jolt since the scrutiny began, may bond even more with Tea Party activists.
Beltway conservatives who fear a looming train wreck may have no choice but to avert their gaze. Unless the other shoe drops soon, Republicans in Iowa and Florida will have more to say about Cain’s future than Republicans who make it onto the pages of the Washington Post.