The fall season, chock full of sports, television and politics, holds important lessons about how fortunes can be dramatically reversed. Take for example the Detroit Lions, who have undergone an unlikely metamorphosis from perennial losers to legitimate contenders.
By contrast, the beleaguered Philadelphia Eagles, who after breathless pre-season hype, now own an ignominious 1-3 record. (Nor have my favorite squad, the six-time Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers, fared much better).
Carrying the football metaphor to its logical conclusion, one could argue Herman Cain is the political incarnation of the Lions — a one-time polling footnote turned leading candidate in the densely populated Republican presidential field. Depending on which poll you read, Cain is either vying for second place nationally, or comfortably ahead in key early contest states like West Virginia, North Carolina and Nebraska. Clearly, some powerful forces appear at work here.
Since his shocking upset in a Florida straw poll last month, the Georgia native has clear momentum. And while it’s too early to tell, evidence is mounting that the formerly high-flying candidacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry may very well be locked in a death spiral.
So can Cain pull off the biggest political primary upset since…well, 2008? In spite of his newfound endorsements and swagger, Cain still has a formidable challenge in toppling the current front-runner, Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor retains a sizable fundraising advantage and is the logical heir to the Republican nod because of primary voters’ tendency to reward the next in line (albeit reluctantly in this case).
Cain has substantial private-sector expertise, but is a novice in foreign affairs at a time when international relations has perhaps never figured more prominently in the presidency. He also remains untested on the national stage. Still, there are more reasons now to believe in the upstart Cain than any other point since the GOP primary contest began. His success has even made a possible bid by Sarah Palin look superfluous.
Many political watchers are flummoxed by Cain’s durability. However, the rationale really isn’t that difficult to fathom. The defining characteristic of Cain’s insurgency seems to be its consolidation of the “anyone but Romney” voting bloc. For a while, that mantle was carried aloft by Gov. Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. But his skilled debate performances and strong Tea Party backing have endeared him to fickle movement conservatives. In a field where contenders have too much of one quality but not enough of another, a candidate capable of uniting the obstreperous factions of social conservatives, business advocates and national security hawks holds a certain allure to voters.
The Morehouse alum pleases the grassroots with his no-compromising style, orthodox conservatism and serious policy thinking. In a clear sign of his sangfroid, Cain once went to toe-to-toe with Bill Clinton on health care. Good, bad or indifferent, Cain leaves little doubt about his stances on some of the most polarizing issues of the day.
All things considered, however, Cain may yet get find himself tripped up by the most pedestrian of hurdles: money. Until his recent popularity boom, the former restaurant executive’s lackluster fundraising consigned him to the back of the Republican pack. Romney’s formidable war chest is starting to swell with Wall Street money that used to favor President Obama.
Although Sen. John McCain famously stormed back from the proverbial political dead after his campaign went broke, that feat may prove challenging to a political newcomer without a political track-record.
While Cain enjoys broad Tea Party support, a vocal subset of the movement remains deeply suspicious about his tenure as a member of the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve. During the summer, Perry waded into a controversy with an impolitic broadside against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, which reflects the implacable hostility of certain Tea Party members toward the central bank. Cain’s own strong defense of the Fed will earn him no favors among that group.
In an environment where President Obama’s defenders have been accused of playing the race card, Cain’s biggest liability might be race — though not in the way some might suggest. The Georgia native has to walk a tightrope between trying to court African-American voters while retaining his organic base of conservative support.
On that score, Cain has yet to find the right balance, and has sometimes appeared hamfisted or tone-deaf with his bold statements. His proclamations of being “a real black man” and being able to snare a third of the black vote smacked of the sort of race-baiting normally exhibited by liberal Democrats. He took Perry to task about the shooting range controversy, but succeeded mainly in infuriating other conservatives with his perceived opportunism.
Many Republican candidates are eager to win over black voters despite the historical enmity that exists between the party and people of color. However, they are also loathe to ensnare themselves in the racial sorties that often characterize Democratic politics. For that reason, and because of media tropes that delight in caricaturing black conservatives, Cain will need to walk an especially fine line when he broaches the subject of race.
Which brings us back to the Detroit Lions. After decades of losing, if they can will themselves into the big leagues by dint of their will, couldn’t a little-known political upstart do the same?