Karl Rove went on the Fox News “America’s Newsroom” show Monday morning to explain that recent gaffes by Herman Cain have created the perception that the Atlanta businessman is “not up to the task” as a Republican presidential candidate. Rove used a whiteboard to illustrate his verdict on Cain’s inadequacy, citing polls as evidence that the Tea Party-backed candidate had “peaked” Oct. 6-10 and telling host Martha MacCallum that the impression created by Cain’s gaffes was “really deadly.”
Republican voters evidently aren’t in much of a mood to take advice from Karl Rove these days, because scarcely had the former top Bush strategist pronounced Cain’s doom than new polls showed the GOP front-runner still going strong. A CBS/New York Times poll released Tuesday had Cain leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by four points (25%-21%) and, as if to put an exclamation point on the refutation of Rove’s verdict, a Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Cain with the same four-point margin (24%-20%) over Romney. Both of those polls were taken after the Oct. 19 debate in Las Vegas and the Fox poll was taken after Cain had spent several days embroiled in a controversy over his views on abortion.
Cain’s momentum has clearly slowed since the astonishing three-week surge that followed his upset victory in the Sept. 24 Florida GOP straw poll, but such a pace could scarcely be expected to continue forever. Rather than saying Cain has “peaked,” however, it would seem more apt to say that the past two weeks have solidified his status as the 2012 front-runner. As of yesterday, for the eighth consecutive day, Cain maintained a narrow edge over Romney in the Real Clear Politics average, despite constant criticism from Rove and other pundits who never miss an opportunity to declare that the political newcomer can’t possibly win. And according to all the standard measures, Cain’s candidacy does look impossible. But from the beginning, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has vowed to run an “outside the box” campaign and the standard measures may not be applicable to such an unorthodox strategy.
One expert who isn’t afraid to admit the difficulty of figuring the odds on Cain is Nate Silver, wizard of political statistics at the New York Times. Examining the gap between the weak “fundamentals” of Cain’s campaign and his high poll numbers, Silver concluded that “there is either something fundamentally unusual about this year’s Republican nomination process, or perhaps that some sort of ‘new normal’ has been established and that the old rules of how you win a nomination no longer carry as much weight.” And as far as trying to predict the chances of Cain’s future success, Silver threw up his hands: “Not only do I not know how I would go about estimating the likelihood that Mr. Cain will win the Republican nomination — I’m not sure that there is a good way to do so at all.” In other words, Cain’s success represents a journey into uncharted political waters, like an ancient explorer sailing off toward the part of the map where the legend reads, “Here Be Dragons.”
At this point, even the campaign’s “gaffes” seem to be helping rather than hurting Cain. Commentators poked fun at a YouTube video in which Cain’s chief of staff Mark Block declares, “Tomorrow is one day closer to the White House.… We’ve run a campaign like nobody’s ever seen, but then America’s never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. We need you to get involved because together, we can do this. We can take this country back.” The video ends with Block puffing on a cigarette, a gesture that caused eye-rolling reactions from critics and helped turn Block’s YouTube debut into a “viral” online sensation, with nearly a million views in the first week after it was posted. One Republican consultant remarked that cable TV news shows seemed more interested in discussing Block’s video than in talking about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s flat-tax proposal.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere at Cain’s Atlanta headquarters is “crazy, hectic, but fine,” campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon said in a telephone interview last night. “We’re doing well. We’re raising a million dollars a week and we’re expanding staff rapidly. We’re happy with the direction we’re going in.” The increase in staff includes an expansion of Cain’s much-criticized operations in Iowa, where the campaign recently hired former state GOP chairman Steve Grubbs to lead its effort in the Hawkeye State. Gordon said that Cain, who just returned from a two-day trip to Iowa, will be soon spending more time in the state that holds its first-in-the-nation caucus Jan. 3, now barely nine weeks away.
Complaints about the chaotic conditions inside Cain’s organization were highlighted in a New York Times article yesterday, which the candidate’s spokesman shrugged off. “It was sour grapes for some of the people who left the campaign,” Gordon said of the complaints. “The one individual quoted [by name] in the story, he worked for the campaign for less than a month out in Iowa… in June, so I don’t know how much insight he had into the campaign, but I’m guessing, not much.” Staff troubles have plagued the Cain campaign for months (I reported on complaints about his Iowa operation in July), but his rapid ascent to national front-runner status has brought new scrutiny to those problems.
Well-connected GOP consultant Ali Akbar, who has heard many complaints about the Cain operation, wrote yesterday: “To understand this article in proper context, you would have had to work on a dark horse longshot campaign. Rules and methods are different.… Volunteers rise to coordinators and staff positions quickly.… It’s not a pretty sight, but many tea party readers know exactly what I’m talking about.” The clashing of egos is routine within all campaigns. However, as many Tea Party activists have learned in the past two years, the problems can be worse when the egos involved are not veteran professional operatives but rather enthusiastic volunteers new to the game. As much as grassroots conservatives may loathe the hired-gun mentality of Republican operatives whose loyalties are for rent to the highest bidder, valuing loyalty over professional competence creates other problems. And these kinds of problems — ubiquitous within Tea Party-backed insurgent campaigns during last year’s mid-term elections — must now be worked out by Cain’s staff under the media glare of a fast-rising presidential campaign.
What Cain is doing has never been done before, because it’s never been tried before. Harnessing the grassroots energy of the Tea Party movement to propel a political novice to the White House isn’t the kind of project that a professional operative like Karl Rove could be expected to endorse, and the odds of Cain’s success are a mystery even to experts like Nate Silver. And yet the expedition sails onward, into uncharted seas where dragons legendarily lurk.