What Herman Cain did in Orlando this weekend was both completely unexpected and entirely predictable. As late as Friday afternoon, none of the pundits expected the Atlanta businessman to win the Florida GOP's "Presidency 5" straw poll. But if what it took to win was a dynamic speaker who could bring a roomful of grassroots Republicans to their feet, Cain's victory was in some sense inevitable.
"Send Washington a message!" Cain thundered from the stage of the Orange County Convention Center, prompting one of seven standing ovations he received Saturday in his speech preceding the vote in which he stomped Texas Gov. Rick Perry so badly that the Republican front-runner may never recover.
Perry's disastrous debate performance Thursday -- in which he said opponents of college tuition subsidies for illegal immigrants "don't have a heart" -- was the precipitating event of Cain's triumph. As the old saying goes, luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity, and Cain was perhaps uniquely prepared to take advantage of the opportunity Perry's stumble presented. In analyzing the straw poll results, Byron York of the Washington Examiner remarked on Cain's "deep, booming voice and a style that any motivational speaker would envy," perhaps not realizing that long before he became a presidential candidate, Cain was quite popular as a motivational speaker at business conferences. He also spent years as a talk-radio host on Atlanta's WSB radio (which was where I first met him in 2007) and was one of the most popular speakers at Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010.
Cain's ability to fire up conservative crowds as a speaker is unmatched by any of his rivals for the 2012 nomination, but his ability to win over grassroots Republicans one-on-one also stood him in good stead in Orlando. "When people meet Herman, they like Herman," the candidate's spokeswoman, Ellen Carmichael, observed to me several months ago. Cain's cheerful confidence and down-to-earth good humor win him friends everywhere he goes. In the week leading up to the Florida straw poll, he traversed the state on a "Common Sense Solutions" bus tour, and he spent much of the weekend meeting informally with delegates in small groups.
Perry's Thursday debate debacle created a dilemma for many of the 3,500 delegates credentialed for the straw-poll who had come to Orlando planning to cast their ballots for the front-runner from Texas. Among those was state Rep. Scott Plakon, a popular conservative from a district north of Orlando. "Like a lot of people, he showed up expecting to vote for Perry," said Republican activist Sarah Rumpf, who was sitting with Plakon and his wife Susie -- all supporters of GOP Senate hopeful Adam Hasner -- at a candidate forum Friday afternoon when Plakon mentioned he was thinking about endorsing Cain. Rumpf immediately contacted Cain's campaign staff and, a few hours later, the Plakons met privately with Cain and found they had much in common. Like Cain, Plakon is a businessman and a strong foe of Obamacare, and was recently named Florida Legislator of the Year by Americans for Prosperity, an activist group deeply involved in the Tea Party movement. Plakon's endorsement lent important prestige to Cain's candidacy and, when it was announced at a gathering of Cain's supporters Friday night in a packed ballroom at the Rosen Centre Hotel, the atmosphere was "electric," Rumpf said.
By Saturday morning, the shift toward Cain was reported by Byron York, who nevertheless described a Cain victory as "unlikely." Yet the momentum snowballed against Perry, who suddenly shot to the top of the polls after entering the 2012 campaign six weeks ago and, just as suddenly, was buried by a sense of impending doom. Dave Weigel of Slate captured the mood in an evocative phrase: "The shadows of vultures have been all over the Perry campaign since the debate."
Ah, yes: The debate. Perry's clumsy defense of the Texas law that permits illegal aliens to qualify for in-state tuition appears destined to enter the history books as one of the most costly political debate bungles of all time. Rumpf noted that Florida has immigration woes of its own, and an excellent state university system with low tuition for residents. "I've known people who moved here [from other states] and took jobs at theme parks just so their kids could qualify for in-state tuition," Rumpf said. "For Perry to say, 'If you don't agree with me, you have no heart' -- people got mad… they were insulted."
That insult sent the straw-poll delegates to Cain, a staunch foe of illegal immigration who once joked that the border should be protected not only by a fence, but also a moat full of alligators. In an ironic denouement, Perry left the Orlando event early, passing up a chance to give a final speech to straw-poll delegates Saturday, in order to attend a conservative event in Michigan, only to suffer another embarrassment when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat him decisively in a straw poll there.
Headline writers described Cain's Orlando victory as "stunning" or "shocking," and reporters noted that his 37 percent of the straw-poll vote was more than Perry (16 percent) and Romney (14 percent) combined. In a remarkable coincidence, his triumph occurred just as Cain is scheduled to begin promoting his new book. Perhaps we should not be so shocked by the success of someone who worked so hard to put himself at the intersection of preparation and opportunity.