I can’t say I’m surprised. For some time now, Right Turn has observed Herman Cain’s decided lack of seriousness and knowledge, recording his horrendously inept response to sexual harassment and assault allegations. We’ve noted with dismay the absence of cogent positions on abortion and most matters of foreign policy. Yesterday, it all seemed to catch up with him in a moment of jaw-dropping confusion over Libya and his weird embrace of collective bargaining rights for public employees — although he said he backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to the hilt.
But we shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of yesterday’s collapse any more than we should attribute Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s problems to the brain-freeze moment. In both cases the candidates were heading on a downward trajectory before the spasm of incoherence. (And to be fair, Perry’s lapse was one of memory that simply confirmed suspicions about his lack of fluency with his own proposals; Cain, on the other hand, revealed his abject ignorance and confusion.)
The latest Post-ABC News poll, surveying adults between Nov. 9 and 13, found a decided downturn in positive views of Cain before this latest episode:
Favorable views of Cain are essentially unchanged from a month ago — 31 percent then, 29 percent now. But the number who have no opinion of him has dropped steeply, while the share seeing Cain unfavorably has jumped from 27 percent in mid-October to today’s 44 percent.
The results suggest that essentially everyone who’s formed an opinion of Cain in the past month has done so negatively — a change concurrent with allegations by four women that Cain sexually harassed them in the 1990s when he headed a restaurant trade association in Washington, D.C.
Not surprisingly Cain has a significant gender gap. Looking more carefully at the erosion in Cain’s support, we see that 34 percent of men view Cain favorably, while only 24 of women do.
It is quite likely that Cain’s numbers will slip further after yesterday’s debacle. But the question remains as to who will benefit from his downfall.
Pundits may be premature in assuming Newt Gingrich will inherit the lion’s share of Cain votes. For starters, the candidates are entirely different. Cain is an outsider and businessman, while Gingrich is the quintessential D.C. insider. Cain is uber-conservative, while on issues ranging from immigration to healthcare to energy subsidies Gingrich is not. Cain had a clear, albeit flawed, tax plan around which he organized his entire campaign; Gingrich has yet to put forth any comprehensive tax, spending, foreign policy or jobs plans. So it’s quite possible the Cain voters will find Gingrich unattractive.
Romney has been at or near the top of the “second choice” polls, suggesting that he might collect quite a number of Cain voters. Those seeking a businessman rather than a full-time pol might finally drift to Romney. Moreover, it’s likely, as the Post-ABC poll shows, that the hard-core conservatives will stick with Cain while his more moderate followers (and those more tolerant of Romney’s departures from conservative orthodoxy) will be the majority of ex-Cain supporters up for grabs.
But we shouldn’t be surprised to see at least a temporary Gingrich surge. As one opponent’s adviser put it, “He has benefited from the reality that he wasn’t worth killing.” In other words, he’s largely gotten a free pass from his opponents up until now. Moreover, as we have seen in the last couple of debates, the competitors seem to have lost the yen to go after one another, at least on the debate stage. The not-Romney candidates have their hands full maintaining their own likability ratings. That pattern of non-engagement may continue, giving Gingrich more breathing room.
It’s nevertheless hard to imagine that Gingrich can maintain his lofty poll numbers. As his serial gaffes, ethics issues and paucity of actual proposals come to light, his numbers very likely will float down to earth. Moreover, unlike Perry and Cain, Gingrich can’t expect a free ride from the conservative media, who recall all too well his dreadful speakership and considerable personal baggage.
What we have come to see in the last few months is a reaffirmation of the “establishment” view of presidential politics: This is not a game for amateurs on the national stage. Perry and Cain simply weren’t prepared for exacting scrutiny and wound up going out of their comfort zones and messing up rather badly. In addition, the rise of Gingrich has also confirmed that health care (on which Gingrich is as problematic to conservatives as is Romney) is not the end-all and be-all in this race.
In every election there are candidates and advisers who think they can reinvent the whole process. It rarely works out that way. That’s how we have gotten Romney and Gingrich, two extremely familiar faces, as frontrunners. Experience and comfort with policy issues turn out to be, after all the hoopla about getting an outsider candidate, critical to a successful primary run.