Herman Cain, the Polls and What Race Has to Do With It

Herman Cain, the Polls and What Race Has to Do With It

Herman Cain, the Polls and What Race Has to Do With It

Like the motivational speaker he is, Cain is helping a lot of Republicans feel just fine about their racial politics.


Yes, they Cain! On Thursday, Zogby released a poll showing Herman Cain not just tying or slightly topping Romney and Perry in the GOP primary race, as he has been for a couple weeks now, but pulling 20 points ahead of Romney, 38 to 18.

And nobody believes those numbers.

Actually, nobody in the media has really believed Cain’s rising popularity for a while, figuring it’s just the latest in the Trump/Bachmann/Perry series of boomlets. But a twenty-point lead has to be more than a technical glitch, even for Zogby. And if it’s not true that 38 percent of Republicans dream of one day saluting a President Cain, then the numbers must mean something else. Maybe it’s a media hall of mirrors: Republicans doubling down on their love for Herman Cain because they don’t like the media laughing at them for claiming to love Herman Cain.

It hasn’t been easy for the political press to say exactly why it thinks Cain’s supersonic rise isn’t real. They’ll say that Cain is a “placeholder” or “a nice protest parking place for Tea Partisans disappointed by the Bachmann and Perry adventures.” All that’s true. But what few seem to consider is the man’s race.

A few days ago on WRRN’s Richard French Live, however, former NY1 political anchor Dominic Carter and former Connecticut congressman Rob Simmons, a Republican, got down to it, musing that Cain’s appeal to white conservatives is related in large part to the Bradley Effect—the phenomenon of white people who, for fear of appearing racist, tell pollsters they’re going to vote for a black candidate but actually vote white (named after LA mayor Tom Bradley, who lost the 1982 gubernatorial race after polls showed him far ahead). French admitted he was relieved his guests brought up the Bradley Effect, so he didn’t have to.

I understand the feeling. In an age when even the most rabid birthers and mosque molesters fly into a rage at the suggestion they might be bigots, it’s become impolitic to state the obvious: that a lot of Tea Party types are crazy for Cain because he shields them against charges of racism. As the current hard-right favorite, Cain is proof of widespread Tea Party colorblindness, writes conservative pundit Ron Christie.

Some conservatives even want extra credit for favoring a “real black man,” as Cain calls himself, over someone like Obama. Laura Ingraham (who wrote in her Barack Obama “diary” that Michelle Obama eats baby-back ribs at every meal) clumsily endorsed that notion last week when she said that Cain "would be the first black president, when you measure it by—because he doesn’t—does he have a white mother, white father, grandparents? No, right?”

Cain’s candidacy can be used as a weapon as easily as a shield. It’s a way for frustrated Republicans to sic it to Romney and Perry for their various rightwing apostasies, telling them, “We distrust you so much, we’d sooner vote for a black guy.”

Let’s be clear: Cain’s race is not the only reason for his popularity.   In the conservative American Spectator, Aaron Goldstein came up with Nine Reasons Why Republicans Ought to Nominate Herman Cain. Only one, Number 7, was “He Would Make Liberal Charges of Racism Look Really, Really Stupid.” Others were “He’s a CEO,” “He Has Never Held Elected Office,” and “He Worked at Burger King.”

Of course, Cain also spews all the right anti-Obama, anti-liberal fairy tales, like telling the Occupy Wall Street protesters “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” and calling blacks “brainwashed” for voting Democratic. Coming from an African-American, that has tremendous value for the right. (Number 1 in Goldstein’s reasons to nominate Cain is “He Has No Sense of Entitlement.”) Like the motivational speaker he is, Cain is helping a lot of Republicans feel better about themselves.

And so far, he’s been running more of motivational book tour than a real campaign for the presidency (just try to find Cain in New Hampshire). His candidacy has more in common with Trump, Gingrich, and others in the Murdoch Primary who’ve glommed onto the GOP race to promote their business-friendly brand.

But as Cain rises in the polls, he is undergoing more scrutiny and is inevitably tripping over facts that don’t fit his sales pitch. Cain told Lawrence O’Donnell Thursday night that he wasn’t involved in the civil rights battles of the ’60s because he was in high school. “If I had been a college student, I probably would have been participating,” he said. When O’Donnell pointed out that Cain was in college from 1963 to 1967, “at the height of the civil rights movement,” Cain went into brain-freeze, saying, “I graduated from high school in 1963, OK? I didn’t start college until the fall of 1963.” Huh? (Here is the fascinating follow-up discussion about the interview itself, and here is Jon Stewart on Cain’s “I don’t have facts to back this up, but” line of argument.)

Pasteboard positions like Cain’s will shred quickly enough, at the hands of the right as well as the left. National Review blogger Kevin Williamson has already taken down Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan by calling it “Nein! Nein! Nein!” And eventually Cain’s Tea Party friends may find he’s not quite the shield they thought. A Red State blogger says he’s “seriously angry” with Cain for calling Perry’s use of the “Niggerhead” hunting camp “insensitive.” “Conservatives already have to fight the race card smears by the media and the left,” writes agconservative, “we don’t need to have them confirmed by leaders in our own movement.”  

Bradley Effect or not, I almost feel bad for Cain. He seems to really believe it when he insists that, unlike former Trump, Bachmann and Perry fans, “Cain supporters do not defect.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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