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The Cain Surge

A to-do list for the new Republican frontrunner.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Just a few weeks ago, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain was stuck in single -digits in the Republican presidential primary polls. Then, on September 22, Texas governor Rick Perry turned in a disastrous debate performance. He said opponents of his immigration policy don’t “have a heart,” and he badly stumbled over his words at times. Perry faded, and Cain surged. Last week, Cain shot past former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to the top of the polls.

Photo of Herman Cain giving a speech

Herman Cain

Gage Skidmore

The big question now is whether Cain can consolidate his gains and actually win the nomination. There are reasons to believe that, yes, he can. Cain is the most charismatic candidate in the GOP race. He’s a great speaker and has a good sense of humor. He is ideologically in tune with conservatives, who make up the base of the Republican party. Cain is the only candidate to offer a bold and specific plan to transform the tax code—his 9-9-9 plan, a 9 percent sales tax, 9 percent flat income tax, and a 9 percent business tax. And the polls indicate that his surge may have legs.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Cain leading Romney 27 percent to 23 percent last week, and Cain outperformed Romney among those paying close attention to the race, as NBC’s First Read blog noted. Twenty-three percent of Republicans didn’t know enough about Cain to have an opinion about him, while only 6 percent didn’t know enough about Romney. And to know Herman Cain is to like him. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from early October found that 70 percent of Republicans say the more they get to know about Herman Cain, the more they like him. Only 38 percent say the same about Mitt Romney, and just 29 percent about Rick Perry. In a head-to-head matchup with Romney, Public Policy Polling found Cain leading Romney 48 percent to 36 percent (with all candidates included, Cain was leading Romney 30 percent to 22 percent).

On the other hand, the Republican primary remains very fluid. According to the PPP survey, more than two-thirds of Cain’s supporters said they might end up voting for someone else. For Cain to win, there are five obvious obstacles he’ll have to overcome.

(1) Iowa is a must-win state for Cain, but he isn’t treating it that way. Whoever wins Iowa will likely emerge as the “anti-Romney” favorite, but following his October 4 appearance on The View, Cain told ABC News that he only has to finish in the top three in Iowa. Cain hasn’t been to Iowa for weeks and reportedly has no plans to go there until November 19. His absence hasn’t hurt him just yet—he’s leading Mitt Romney 30 percent to 22 percent in the state, according to the latest PPP poll. But Cain can’t neglect the voters in Iowa for too long before it starts to become an issue.

(2) Cain’s support in 2008 for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka the bank bailout, could hurt him. When the issue came up during the October 11 debate at Dartmouth College, Cain said, “I happen to agree with Governor Romney. The way it was administered is where it got off-track.” Many other conservatives in good standing—such as Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin—take the same position. But if Cain stays on top, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann will likely go after him on this issue in future debates and TV ads. “TARP didn’t inspire the Tea Party, runaway spending inspired the Tea Party,” Cain told me in an interview earlier this year. Cain’s hypothesis will be put to the test in the coming months. 

(3) Cain’s memorable 9-9-9 tax plan may be a double-edged sword. It’s won him praise from the likes of famed supply-side economist Arthur Laffer. But Bachmann and Perry are focusing on the new 9 percent sales tax to say the plan is really a tax increase. The sales tax is meant to replace taxes Cain would scrap or lower (the income tax), so most people would see a net tax decrease. But the sales tax would appear to increase the tax burden on Americans who pay no income tax, such as the poor, many families who benefit from exemptions and the child tax credit, and seniors living off Social Security. Cain’s response is that the plan will lead to cheaper goods, more jobs, and high growth. That’s a start, but he probably needs to show openness to modifying the plan. 

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