This is not a fanboy column about Herman Cain. I may wind up supporting Cain, but this is a column about political dynamics and how elections work. At the moment, I’m less infuriated by the debate about who should win than I am by the stubborn refusal of the punditry to acknowledge who actually is winning. If you listen to the talking heads on any network, the near-universal conclusion is that the collapse of Rick Perry makes a Mitt Romney nomination inevitable. Yes, Cain is surging, and in some polls has actually passed Romney for the lead, but this is dismissed as a flash in the pan that will soon fade due to Cain’s relative lack of money and organization.
I’m sorry, but their calculations, quite honestly, are incorrect.
A more realistic analysis of the available data indicates that Herman Cain is far more likely to rise higher than fall back. I’m not saying this based only on polls, because polls are fickle. Nor am I asserting that Cain’s purity of heart is going to prevent him from sinking — altruism in politics belongs in the same realm of fantasy as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. No, my bullishness about Cain’s chances stems from the underlying factors driving his surge — factors which have delivered jaw-dropping victories when they surfaced in other elections.
Here’s the thing: I watch a lot of elections. If there’s an election in Latvia, I watch. If I have to get up at 4 a.m. to watch an Australian ballot count, I do it. I’ve seen almost everything, and I’ve learned that there are two types of polling surges. One leads to a crash, the other to victory — and Herman Cain’s current rise bears the hallmarks of the latter.
The first type of surge is what I would call a “flavor of the month” event. These happen in the middle of an election campaign when voters become disillusioned with the known choices and pile onto the first new option that appears. These are fragile, and they almost always come crashing down within weeks. The reason that these never last is that they are driven purely by dissatisfaction with the existing options. However, after a week or two, the “new guy” has a horrible debate, people figure out that he’s just another politician, and his numbers tank.
A prime example of this came in the 2010 British election, when Nick Clegg and his third-place Liberal Democrat Party shocked the U.K. by surging to the lead after the first debate. The leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties appeared stale, while Clegg was optimistic and preached that politics could be different. However, when Clegg failed to deliver anything new in his second debate, the public figured out that his message was hollow. Not only did he finish the election in third, but the Liberal Democrats actually finished with fewer parliamentary seats than they had before the election.
This is the pattern we have seen this year from flashy new candidates like Rick Perry, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Cain himself when he first entered the race. Cain’s current surge could also end this way if he flubs tonight’s debate — but given his speaking skills, I doubt that will happen.
The second, more powerful type of surge is what I call a “default” event. In this pattern, the beneficiary is always a familiar and popular politician — somebody who the electorate already knows and loves, but who nobody thinks can actually win. When a well-funded frontrunner (like Perry) implodes, voters dump that option and “default” back to supporting whichever second-tier candidate they liked in the first place. Sometimes this scatters votes. But if one of the also-rans is particularly beloved by everybody, all of the defaulters default in the same direction. When that happens, the beloved but written-off candidate jumps in the polls. The media reports it, the rest of the electorate realizes that their sentimental favorite is suddenly viable, and they pile on. These surges lead to actual victories because they are driven by the candidate’s well-established positive reputation.
The template for a “default” surge is Canadian socialist Jack Layton, who led his fourth-place New Democratic Party to a shock second-place finish in the 2011 election. Layton had previously led the NDP through three national elections, and was consistently the most likable and admired leader in Canadian politics. But, his party traditionally finished behind the other three major parties — so that’s where he finished in the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections. Everybody wanted to have a beer with Jack, but they didn’t think he could win. That changed in the 2011 election, when the third-place Bloc Quebecois (the Quebec separatist party) suffered an historic collapse. Layton had done a lot of work courting French-speaking Quebecers, despite having almost no organization in French Canada, and his performance in the 2011 campaign caused Quebec to take a second look at him. Voters were already disillusioned with the Bloc’s tunnel-vision focus on splitting the country, and they bolted en masse to Layton’s NDP. He finished the election winning 59 parliamentary seats in the province of Quebec — having started with only one. He also won in a number of districts where he had no organization on the ground at all.
The reason I bring this up is that there are an eerie number of similarities between Layton and Cain — right down to their mustaches.
Both were powerful orators and stellar debaters, and both fed off the collapse of a more powerful force (the Bloc Quebecois for Layton, Rick Perry for Cain). Both men also scored very high in polls measuring likability long before they surged, building personal popularity that eventually delivered votes. Layton spent eight years building his image, while Cain has taken only a few months, but the principle is the same. The electorate got to know Herman Cain after the first debate, which gave him a brief surge. After that surge faded, he retained an intense positive feeling in the minds of voters, even those who dumped him when Bachmann and Perry entered. “Saturday Night Live” unwittingly picked up this undercurrent in a recent debate spoof (aired before Cain’s surge), where a fake Shepard Smith noted that, “Once again, Herman Cain has received wild applause, but, Mr. Cain, that will not translate into actual votes.” In reality, that applause often does translate into votes, especially if the well-heeled frontrunners make fools of themselves.
Both Layton and Cain were also accused of riding personal popularity without having any organization to back it up — but in Layton’s case it didn’t matter. In fairness, Layton had more machinery than Cain, but none of it was in Quebec, and Quebec is where he won. Most Quebecers went the entire election without seeing a single advertisement for their local NDP candidate — yet they all elected NDP representatives due to Layton’s personal popularity. Once you hit a certain tipping point, where a beloved but unorganized challenger becomes viable in the minds of the public, the wave becomes too big to stop and organization becomes a non-factor. I’m not sure that Cain is quite there yet, but he will be if and when he passes Romney for the national polling lead (which I think will happen by November).
Now, I’m not saying Herman Cain will definitely win, and the Jack Layton analogies only go so far. Layton was a socialist leading a national party in a nationwide general election. Cain is a conservative running in a party primary that targets small states. More importantly, Layton surged in the closing two weeks of his election (and still only came in second), while we’re still three months away from the Iowa caucuses. Cain has a lot more margin for error, and he has to keep his foot out of his mouth for several months.
However, I think both Cain and Layton enjoyed a popularity that is deeper than a passing flirtation — if you want proof of that, look at how fast Cain’s book is selling. Paying for a book is an investment in the author, and it indicates more than surface-level interest. That may mean that more time actually gives Cain more room to rise.
At the end of the day, the guy everybody wants to have a beer with tends to come out on top, regardless of how underrated he may be. Jack Layton proved it, and now Herman Cain is doing the exact same thing.
The sheer number of similarities between Cain and Layton leads me to believe that there is more to the comparison than coincidence. Rather, both men and their campaigns fit a template designed to cause and sustain out-of-nowhere surges. That’s not pie-in-the-sky altruism, it’s the cold hard laws of politics at work.
Adam Brickley was the founder of the website “Draft Sarah Sarah Palin for Vice President” (palinforvp.blogspot.com). He has contributed to Race42012.com and The Weekly Standard’s blog, and is a contributor at Conservatives4Palin.com.