Could it be that 12 months from now, as the 2012 election campaign moves to a climax, no white man will have a chance of winning the presidency of the United States? In other words, might Barack Obama’s Republican challenger be not Mitt Romney or the Rick Perry – but an African American businessman named Herman Cain?
A glance at the current polls would suggest that the once inconceivable is suddenly a distinct possibility. Since he trounced Mr Perry in a straw poll vote in Florida on 24 September, Mr Cain – who has never held elective office of any kind and is best known as former boss of the Godfather’s Pizza franchise – has climbed to at least a tie for second place with the Texas governor Mr Perry, and a few points behind the unloved front-runner, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who seems to have been running for the White House for ever.
And he may be even doing better than that. Everyone’s heard of rogue polls – but one roguish enough to put Mr Cain 20 per cent ahead of his rivals, beyond any imaginable statistical margin of error? That was the finding of the respected Zogby poll last Thursday, showing he had the support of 38 per cent of likely Republican primary voters, against 18 per cent for Mr Romney, and just 12 per cent for Mr Perry. What on earth is going on?
Political sages have several explanations for Mr Cain’s surge. He is for a start, the latest in a long line of “ABRs”, the new favourite of conservative and Tea Party Republicans whose mantra is “Anybody But Romney”.
First there was that rather more famous businessman Donald Trump, then the Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, then Mr Perry. Now it is the turn of “the Hermanator” (to borrow the name of Mr Cain’s political action committee).
Second, he is a highly effective debate performer in a political year when candidates’ debates count more than ever – certainly more right now than the traditional yardsticks of fundraising and campaign organisation. Mr Cain’s rise gained real impetus after a string of dismal podium performances by Mr Perry, who had instantly swept to the top of the field after joining the race in mid-August. Already there have been half a dozen debates, and another is being held tonight, in Dartmouth, New Hampshire. Another strong showing by Mr Cain could show that the Zogby poll was no fluke.
Most important though, in this moment of national discontent, when the mood of voters is more anti-incumbent, anti-establishment and anti-Washington than ever, Mr Cain comes across as the quintessential political outsider, who has made his way from humble origins by the sweat of his brow – and in the real world, not in the out-of-touch, money-driven universe of politics.
“I’m the only business problem-solver that’s running for President of the United States,” he told CBS News last week. “Mitt Romney was a Wall Street executive. I was a Main Street executive. I’ve actually made pizzas, made hamburgers, cleaned restaurants, swept the parking lot, OK? I’ve been a hands-on business executive throughout my career, so I can better connect with people who are working for hourly wages. I can relate to the small businessman. Why? I have been one, and I’m still one.”
In a different way, his life story is as inspiring as that of Mr Obama. Mr Cain’s father was a chauffeur, his mother a cleaning lady. He grew up in Georgia, graduated in computer science and worked briefly for the Navy Department before joining Coca-Cola in Atlanta. In 1978 he moved to the Pillsbury group, and became a top regional manager of Burger King, then a Pillsbury subsidiary.
His success led Pillsbury to put him in charge of another subsidiary, the struggling Godfather’s Pizza. Mr Cain turned the company around, and in 1988 took control himself in a leveraged buyout. Less well known, he spent four years (including two as chairman) at the Kansas City Federal Reserve, one of the 12 component districts of the Federal Reserve System, which act as listening posts for the US central bank, their fingers on the pulse of the real, productive economy.
But Mr Cain is not exactly a political ingenue. An activist for decades, he worked on Bob Dole’s 1996 White House campaign, before briefly running for President himself in 2000. He also made an unsuccessful bid for a Georgia US Senate seat in 2004. And as a one-time head of the National Restaurant Association, he knows exactly how Washington lobbying works.
Will the Cain boom last? Thus far, precisely because he was until now seen as the longest of long shots, he has been spared serious media scrutiny. This will now begin in earnest. It will examine his health: five years ago, Mr Cain overcame colon and liver cancer, which doctors gave him only a 30 per cent chance of surviving. It will surely also focus on his more recent roles as commentator for Fox Business and as a conservative Atlanta talkradio host.
Experts will scrutinise too his main, and beguilingly simple, policy prescription: the “9/9/9” formula that would replace today’s loophole-riddled tax structure and replace it with a 9 per cent income tax, a 9 per cent business tax, and a 9 per cent national sales tax, getting rid of capital gains taxes, payroll tax (national insurance) and death duties.
And then of course there is his race, and the paradox of a black man becoming the presidential standard bearer of a party that has sometimes played the race card hard and ugly. Mr Cain isthe counter-intuitive conservativeblack man.
He accuses African-Americans of being “brainwashed” into voting Democrat, and he points to his own career as proof that skin colour need be no impediment to success. He has no sympathy for the current Occupy Wall Street movement, calling protesters “jealous” Americans who “play the victim card,” accusing them of being “planted” by Mr Obama and the unions to distract attention from the real failings of the Democratic administration.
The rise of Herman Cain may be for real – or it may just be one more venting of Republican frustration against the establishment in general and Mitt Romney in particular. One thing though is sure. This will not be the last twist in this most unpredictable of years in American politics.
Rupert Cornwell, The Independent