It seems fair to say that virtually no one expected Herman Cain to win the Florida straw poll over the weekend, least of all Herman Cain. He didn’t just squeak out a surprise win, either. It was a blowout, with Cain pulling over twice as many votes as the next runner-up, Rick Perry. Perry was campaigning very hard for a win, but he ended up only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, who didn’t really put any effort into the straw poll.
Cain didn’t have a lot of campaign activity scheduled for this week, although he shouldn’t have much trouble getting the media attention he needs to capitalize on his win. The great significance of the Florida straw poll is that it earns him a massive dose of credibility. He’s in the top tier of candidates now, and he needs to do what it takes to stay there.
The Republican Party of Florida will happily tell you that their straw poll has a superb track record of predicting the eventual nominee, a tradition that began with Ronald Reagan in 1979. This is partially due to the fairly strict rules of the poll – it’s tough for headline-seeking candidates to “game” the results. It also doesn’t hurt that Florida’s worth 29 electoral votes, as we all became keenly aware during the 2000 election.
Awareness of this history within the Party gives Cain’s victory internal significance, as well as media impact. That’s the kind of boost Cain really needed at this point. “Outsider” candidates need party strength, and the support of important donors. If they make it all the way to the White House, they need congressional allies, especially when they’re packing reform proposals as dramatic as Herman Cain’s “999 plan.” If he wants to run on that plan, he has to make the Republican Party apparatus, and primary voters, see it as a serious proposal with some plausible chance of passage, not a slice of savory wish fulfillment that stands not a snowball’s chance in Beltway Hell.
Personally, I’d find it very illuminating to hear about his journey from ardent Fair Tax supporter to the “999 Plan,” which is a hybrid of flat taxes and a national sales tax. Such a discussion would make the “999 Plan” sound even better, as audiences have become curious about the thinking behind it.
Also, I’m sure Cain knows perfectly well that the Left will savage him for proposing to defund the glorious welfare state by ditching confiscatory tax rates, along with tens of thousands of pages of “progressive” tax law. His Republican debate opponents might not bring that up, but it would be helpful for him to offer a preview of how he plans to deal with such attacks. It’s time to give primary voters a good look at what sort of general election candidate he’ll be.
I’d actually extend that advice to the entire Republican field. The annoying thing about Rick Perry and Mitt Romney’s bare-knuckle book-club brawl is that it amounts to bickering, an attempt by each candidate to climb the primary ladder by putting his boots on another Republican’s face. There’s always going to be some of that, naturally, but the focus should be shifting to a competition where each GOP candidate tries to convince us he’d be best equipped to take on the incumbent President. Part of the reason for Cain’s success in Orlando is that he did the best job of demonstrating that. He would have given the same answers to every question if he’d been alone on the stage.
Cain had better prepare to be hammered at the next debate. He was spoken of very highly by the other candidates during the Orlando debate, but that honeymoon is definitely over. Cain used to be a powerful debater who made rookie mistakes when the topic didn’t really interest him. In Orlando, he was a powerful debater who didn’t make any rookie mistakes. At the next few debates, his early rookie mistakes will be dropping by to say hello. He should prepare to deal with them.
Cain has run largely on his status as an outsider, a successful businessman who has the right medicine for an economy destroyed by career politicians. There are some other aspects of his biography he should play up more, particularly his position as chairman of the Board of Directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. I’m surprised how many people don’t know that. Actually, I was surprised how many people didn’t know he was a cancer survivor until he stopped the show in Orlando by talking about it.
He might also benefit from emphasizing an aspect of his business resume that hasn’t gotten much attention thus far: he left a very successful and very comfortable executive position at Pillsbury, where he put in a considerable amount of time getting hands-on experience at Burger King restaurants, to tackle Godfather’s Pizza. The success of the TV show “Undercover Boss” suggests people admire executives who get their hands dirty and learn first-hand from the little guys. The entrepreneurial spirit and educated risk Cain took on Godfather’s Pizza are a strong antidote the unsustainable can’t-do spirit of Obama’s Hospice America, where a collapsing economy is raided to spin cocoons for a helpless population, whose success depends on the rationing of scarce government-created jobs.
On a technical note, the Cain campaign should be working to improve their infrastructure. Cain’s website melted down under a traffic avalanche after his surprising Florida straw poll win. His media contact form has crashed every time I’ve tried to use it. It’s understandable that they weren’t really prepared for the level of attention their candidate received over the weekend. It is now essential for them to act like they expect it to continue.