What Mitt Romney could learn from Herman Cain

Tara Wall CNN Political Contributor
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The Cain train is “still on the move,” as the former GOP presidential hopeful quipped this morning on “Fox & Friends.” Herman Cain is gliding along a familiar track as a surrogate and Republican message-bearer. These are roles the pizza man has played in the past and is well-suited for. Advocates of inclusive messaging, take note.

During the 2004 presidential cycle, when I was the director of outreach communications at the Republican National Committee, Herman Cain, then-RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie and I toured urban areas touting a message of “economic empowerment.” This time, Cain is making the rounds as a mouthpiece for the Newt Gingrich campaign. It’s a smart move for Gingrich, who is no stranger to reaching out to ethnic minorities. I know this from first-hand experience, having worked with the speaker briefly in 2006, when I was senior adviser to then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman.

Regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, there are two big takeaways from the comments Cain made this morning.

1.) Gingrich has charged Cain with reaching out to college students. Why? As Cain explained to Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson:

“They like my personality and my sense of humor, and the way I talk about the issues connects with the youth. They are not going to necessarily watch the Sunday morning talk shows. So if you want to get the message there, you have to go to them.”

He’s right. Having an ability to connect with younger voters (no matter the reason) is crucial for any campaign. We don’t know why young voters like what they like, we just know when they do, they do. Strategically capitalizing on persona is an authentic move by a campaign that understands this dynamic.

2.) Cain went on to explain to Carlson the importance of reaching three obvious GOP target groups: base Republicans, evangelical Christians and independents. Then, he said something really interesting: The eventual GOP nominee will need to reach out to traditionally Democratic groups as well. As he put it: “There are some disgruntled Democrats who have buyer’s remorse — that’s how we win in November.”

Truer words have never been spoken. We’re not talking monumental numbers here, but there are enough disaffected Democrats to make a dent in Obama’s vote tally. If the GOP is to have any chance of winning in November, it will need to put some boots on the ground and step up its game in Democratic-leaning areas — especially minority areas. I know that the party has an opportunity to pick a large number of people who voted for Obama in 2008, having spoken with and interviewed black Democrats and Republicans who voted for Obama but are now upset with the president’s performance. Cain’s advice is not only sound but comes from someone who has been in the trenches and knows the landscape. Democrats, who count on the race card and the GOP writing off minority voters, won’t expect a battle in their own backyard until it’s too late. Plus, reaching out to minorities is just the right thing to do.

Gingrich seems to understand these points. It doesn’t seem like Romney does. Just consider that Cain’s comments came, almost ironically, around the same time a tone-deaf Mitt Romney told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that he’s “not concerned about the very poor.” For all his well-intentioned focus on the middle class, Romney still fails to connect on a fundamental social level. In stark contrast, Gingrich can credibly level a “paycheck instead of a welfare check” one-liner. It helps that he has guys like Herman Cain to back him up.

Tara Wall is a conservative columnist, former deputy editor for The Washington Times and CNN political contributor. She blogs at Tara’s Two Cents.