National polls this week showing that Herman Cain’s sexual harassment scandal hasn’t moved the needle in the race are, candidly, irrelevant. In a Monday-to-Wednesday survey, for example, did the Monday and Tuesday respondents know about the financial settlements Cain had denied? It wasn’t until Thursday that Cain reiterated his accusation against the Perry camp while his chief of staff confessed there wasn’t enough information to tie the Texas governor’s staff to the leak. That and a dozen other details were still unfolding during a tumultuous week. The national polls you see this week are unhelpful for three reasons.
First, public opinion, unlike punditry, is not instantaneously changed. People in a national poll (registered, not even likely, voters), most of whom are not in early primary states, get drips and drabs of the scandal. Until they get all the facts, talk to friends and family, watch the late-night comedians and soak up the coverage, they really can’t be expected to pronounce on the subject. It is akin to declaring that uncooked cake batter that has just been popped into the oven is immune to the heat.
A prominent social conservative leader e-mailed me: “I just feel like I need to keep my powder dry until everything dribbles out. But not being willing to confront this kind of character flaw brought us the Clinton scandal. What we said back then is that character matters and I still believe that. Do the moral failures of Republicans and conservatives get more attention from the mainstream media? Absolutely but so what. We should be held to a high standard because we believe we have a role to play in guarding our nation’s morality.” In short, people want to hear more before they write him off.
Second, Cain’s problem is not the sexual harassment; it is his bizarre handling of the situation. The Post-ABC News poll asked (which began Sunday, when virtually no one had heard of the controversy): “It’s been reported that two female employees accused Cain of making unwanted sexual advances in the 1990s, and they received financial payments to leave the trade association he headed at the time. Cain says he was falsely accused and never sexually harassed anyone. Do you think this is a serious matter, or not serious?” That is actually the least of Cain’s problems. How about this question: “Has Cain’s handling of the controversy given you more or less confidence in him?”
And third, once again, we should take all national polling with a grain of salt. A small portion of those respondents are in early states and are actually making a voting decision, as opposed to giving thumbs up or down on contestants in a sort of TV reality show.
There are two longer-term phenomena, however, to keep an eye on.
First, Perry is not coming back. In fact, he’s still sliding. In the Post-ABC News poll he went from 17 percent to 14 percent among registered voters in a month. In the Quinnipiac poll, released Wednesday, he went from 14 percent to 8 percent. Interestingly, the Quinnipiac poll reports: “Picking a winner of the GOP debates so far, 25 percent of Republicans pick Gingrich and 24 percent pick Romney. Picking a loser is no contest as 37 percent say Perry did worst.” Getting a new staff, rolling out a new economic plan and going up with ads haven’t helped. It stands to reason that, as Perry’s standing goes down, he’ll get a smaller percentage of any Cain voters who shake loose.
And finally, Mitt Romney remains the top second choice of GOP voters with 21 percent. Cain is next at 17 percent. It may be that when Cain’s support dips, Romney benefits as much as or more than any candidate.
For now, keep an eye on the unfolding story and reaction in early states. That’s a much better predictor of where this is headed. The social conservative leader told me: “I am very troubled by all of this. I am wondering if the man is a narcissist? I agree that even if Perry’s people leaked it they did us all a favor by getting it out now. . . . This process is after all about picking the leader of the free world. Kinda important.” I’m betting that a lot of conservatives agree.