Back to previous page


How has Herman Cain survived?

By ,

It’s been eight days since Politico first reported on allegations that businessman Herman Cain had sexually harassed two women during his time as the head of the National Restaurant Association.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gestures during a debate with Newt Gingrich in Houston November 5, 2011. REUTERS/Donna W. Carson

In the intervening week, two more women — including Sharon Bialek who went public with her allegations this afternoon — have come forward while Cain and his senior campaign team have tried without much success to beat back the story.

And, yet, Cain is still standing and, to hear some in conservative circles tell it, prospering in the race. Polling confirms Cain’s surprising strength in the face of these allegations; in a Washington Post-ABC News poll he was in a statistical dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a 2012 primary matchup.

How is Cain doing it?

In conversations with a handful of Republican strategists as well as an analysis of how past presidential scandals have played out, a few explanations make sense.

1. The women are silent: Up until today’s press conference, none of the women who made these allegations against Cain have been willing to speak out publicly. That silence makes it harder for people to empathize/sympathize with the accusers since they remain in the eyes of the public both faceless and voiceless.

Need an example of how much a woman speaking out can matter? Who could forget Gennifer Flowers’ news conference way back in 1992 alleging an affair with then presidential candidate Bill Clinton? It put a face to a name and made the allegations seem more credible.

Given that the world of 24-hour cable news has absolutely exploded since the early 1990s, it’s easy to imagine footage of Cain’s accuser(s) being run on a loop — making it virtually impossible for him to move on with his campaign until he had formally rebutted the charges against him.

That’s why today’s press conference is a potential game changer in the Cain story. An on-the-record (and, more importantly, on video) accusation of sexual harassment is FAR harder for Cain to ignore or dismiss. Can Cain really let an allegation that he reached under a woman’s skirt and said “you want a job, right?” stand without response?

2. Cain’s true believers: For months — and even prior to his rise into the top-tier of the Republican presidential field — Cain’s supporters have been among the most passionate and dedicated to their guy. (The only person with more passionate supporters? Dr. Ron Paul.)

Given that level of loyalty, there is a tendency among Cain supporters to be dismissive of what he (and they) have cast as a witch hunt by establishment Republicans and the national news media to bring him down.

“Cain supporters will stick with their guy until the claims against him become much more convincing,” said one Republican strategist not affiliated with any 2012 campaign but following the race closely. “In fact, in the absence of clear evidence, Cain’s supporters will grow even more determined because they will believe their guy has been unjustly accused.”

3. Process not allegations: Cain has been remarkably effective — particularly given the scatter-shot approach he has taken to responding to the charges — in turning the focus to the “why” of the allegations as opposed to the allegations themselves.

He has slammed the media for their decision to follow the story and tried to lay blame at the feet of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign for leaking the story out.

(What Cain has not disputed — because it’s hard to dispute facts — is that at least one women who brought allegations against him received a financial settlement as a result.)

Cain’s process-focused response has, seemingly, helped to convince Republicans that the story really isn’t that big a deal. In the Post-ABC survey 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said the story was “not serious; 54 percent of Republicans said they weren’t concerned about voting for Cain in spite of the sexual harassment allegations in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

The more Cain can turn this story into a debate about what the media focuses on (and why) and away from the actual details of the charges against him, the better chance he has to survive.

4. Time will tell: While the last eight days have been non-stop Cain coverage for those in the political world, regular people likely haven’t been paying anywhere near as close attention to it.

Don’t forget that much of the northeast was in the dark for much of the past week — suffering through an extended power outage that pushed the Cain story to the back burner (if it was on any burner at all).

While Cain’s varied — and, oftentimes, at odds — explanations of what he knew and when he knew don’t seem to have slowed him just yet they have kept the story in the news, adding to the likelihood that it will trickle down to the point where an average voter will be aware of it.

Polling released in the past few days has good news (or at least not bad news) for Cain. But the longer the story lingers, the worse it will be for Cain. And today’s press conference is sure to keep the allegations in the news (and on your cable channels) for days to come.

© The Washington Post Company