The distance that Herman Cain has traveled — from a modest upbringing, to corporate executive, to talk radio star, to frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination and back to Earth — is remarkable. His story should be made into a Hollywood movie.
But the recent accusation that he had a 13-year-long affair with an Atlanta woman means that his dance is over. It doesn’t matter whether he stays in the race or bows out. He will be dogged by questions about the affair for the rest of his campaign, and there will be no way for him to change the subject.
Politics is both an art and a science. As such, there are laws of politics. One is that money follows momentum. Cain knows this better than anyone. Even to this day, he has no major donor finance infrastructure, and yet when he was riding high in the polls, he was raising over $1 million a day, mostly from small donors. But now that his momentum is gone, that stream of money will dry up.
It didn’t have to be this way. If Cain had done a few things differently, he might still be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Here’s what he did wrong:
1) Wasting the Florida straw poll momentum: Cain won a resounding and unexpected victory at the Florida straw poll in September. The victory generated a tremendous amount of media attention for his campaign. Suddenly, Cain could do any major media interview he wanted — at any time. He should have capitalized on the media attention by focusing on Iowa. Had he done so, he could have translated his national poll strength into a sustainable organization in the most important early state. Instead, he ignored Iowa and launched a book tour.
2) Running an outsider campaign like an amateur: Presidential politics is not for rookies — rookie candidates or rookie staffers. There’s a reason the same names manage campaigns every four years: they know how to do it. Cain never ran his campaign in a professional, strategic way, which rightly worried the GOP establishment and major donors. Eventually, his staffers’ inexperience caught up with them. I suspect Cain would say he didn’t hire high-priced operatives because he couldn’t afford them initially and he didn’t want to run a traditional campaign. That may be, but the results were tragic. Cain had no pollster. He had no media consultant. Several of his staff had spotty professional backgrounds. His campaign ads were widely ridiculed (remember the Mark Block smoking ad?). His communications team consisted of one very well-regarded but overworked staffer (Ellen Carmichael) for much of 2011. He failed to run field operations in the early states or build an in-house finance staff. His campaign resembled an upstart congressional campaign, not that of a GOP presidential frontrunner. When he had the chance to upgrade, he consistently chose not to — and he paid the price.
3) Failing crisis communications completely: It may be easy to blame the media for “attacking a conservative,” but to date five women have come forward. At some point, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The most damaging error that Cain’s campaign made was completely botching its response to the original Politico story. Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, among the best-sourced, hardest-working and most decent in the national press corps, gave the Cain campaign 10 days to respond to accusations that two former colleagues had accused him of “sexually suggestive” and “inappropriate” behavior while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. But the Cain campaign chose not to respond. Then, Martin publicly confronted Cain after a Sunday show interview to get his response — on the record. Unbelievably, Cain appeared to be totally unaware of the story. On top of that, the Cain campaign apparently didn’t even prepare for the story by developing timelines or nailing down what the candidate’s exact recollections were. Stunning incompetence. Once the story ran, the campaign repeatedly fumbled its response, with rolling disclosure, a story that changed and endless media hits where the candidate himself tried to explain what had or had not happened. His attacks on his accusers brought more accusers forward. His campaign’s awful response raised further questions about its professionalism and about Cain’s personal integrity, and sidetracked the campaign at a critical time.
4) Undermining his own credibility: Cain’s most valuable asset was his supporters’ intensity, which by August and early September was higher than that of any other candidate’s supporters. His supporters valued his straight talk and honesty, and they found him credible. But then Cain undermined his own credibility by repeatedly changing his story, which invited further investigations from national reporters. In the immediate aftermath of the story, his campaign also wrongly asserted: 1) that one accuser’s son worked for Politico and 2) that a Perry campaign operative, Curt Anderson, was directly responsible for leaking the information that generated the original Politico story (Anderson immediately denied the accusation, on air, in a very convincing fashion. That forced the Cain campaign to walk back the charge.). If Cain was guilty of anything — outright adultery, bad judgment, inappropriate comments or even just a wandering eye — his only hope was to admit it and move on. By denying it, launching false attacks, changing his story and utterly mishandling the public relations angle, he invited further scrutiny and lost his credibility. Once a candidate loses his credibility, nothing can bring it back.
Herman Cain has proven himself to be a rare talent in politics, with undeniable personal charisma, intelligence, experience and likability. His future in the Republican Party remains bright. His long-shot bid for the presidency caught the imagination of the American people for a moment, but that moment has long since passed.
Matt Mackowiak is a Washington, D.C. and Austin, TX-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He has been an adviser to two U.S. senators and one governor, and has worked on two winning campaigns.