Herman Cain Swims with the Sharks
(Full disclosure: The author has done some writing for Mr. Cain and is currently working with him on his next book.)
With apologies to headline writers, the shock of Herman Cain routing the field in the Florida Straw poll and scoring first in the latest Zogby poll simply eludes me. If this result -- which is no doubt tied to the mixed performances during the last debate -- moves him into or near the top tier, I will not be shocked about that, either.
All of this is actually somewhat predictable if you are familiar with Herman Cain and how he might just be a man perfectly positioned for this specific election season. When you combine that possibility with one of the main principles of Harvey McKay's leadership book How to Swim With the Sharks..., you can see that this is an almost natural outcome. (More later on that.)
As I wrote in May -- on the possibility that Cain might disappear after the initial debate and his impressive roll-out announcement -- this is not a candidacy to be taken lightly:
But the main reason I think Cain's candidacy will continue to develop is Cain himself, combined with the times we are in. Herman Cain is a meticulous CEO whose life story is the essence of the American dream. His campaign, like his life, will be the sum of his focused planning plus his irrepressible personality and persona. He has a connection with people that is amazing, and for some reason, he just looks and sounds exactly as a man with his experiences should. And having stared stage 4 cancer in the eye and beaten it, he is fearless -- and his "give a damn" is broke.
Now certainly in the four months since this was written, his campaign did fade slowly from the top as the realities of financing such an effort have combined with a couple of not-so-great Chris Wallace moments and an overblown kerfuffle over Muslims in the Cabinet and so on. None of that changed the idea that Cain might be right for the times, however.
On top of that, Michele Bachmann had an outstanding performance in the second debate. That momentum carried her right through the Ames Straw Poll -- which she won. No doubt during this time she picked up some supporters who also are predisposed to liking Cain but jumped simply because Bachmann was saying and doing all the right things. Candidates on a roll pick up voters who also like other candidates who are not on a roll at that moment.
Meanwhile, the Sarah Palin bus tour rolled through Iowa and other parts of the nation at that same time, sucking up more potential oxygen for Cain. Again, this is potential Cain space, since he and Governor Palin are extremely close ideologically -- and nothing could be more "rogue" than a businessman being elected president.
(As an aside, there was some buzz on the web over the weekend that Palin might endorse Cain if she doesn't run. Just buzz, but that anyone would think it speaks to the mutual appeal of the two.)
And then of course Rick Perry threw his Stetson in the ring and that dominated the field the way only a veteran governor of a very successful and big state can. With his resonance with Tea Party principles (tuition issues notwithstanding) and his boldness on our national Ponzi scheme and stating that we need a less consequential Washington -- Perry roared to the top. His message, if not his entire record, was pretty darned good Tea Party stuff.
Still, the dynamic that Cain might be perfectly matched with 2012 was unchanged.
And during all of this, Cain continued to be the happy warrior. He attacked only Obama and liberalism in the debates and in his other public statements and he remained undeterred by others with more money or higher poll numbers. You have to understand that Herman Cain is convinced that the citizen's Tea Party movement has changed everything. (He has even inserted "citizens" into the name of that movement lately.)
And when everything is changed, nothing is more useless than conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom is missing this shifting of several electoral tectonic plates beneath our feet. A man like Cain would never stand a chance in any cycle prior to 2012. But this is the cycle of 2012. The sea change in our politics indicates that a man like Herman Cain just might be a man who is right for this time -- even if never before.
As the election of Obama taught us all, when a certain person meets a certain point in time and a certain mood of the electorate, it is a powerful force -- a perfect storm. This is true even when all of it is based on ignorance and reality-challenged emotion and misplaced guilt, as Obama's election was. A perfect storm is a storm nonetheless.
And a perfect storm of sorts is what has played out over the past couple of weeks. In succession, we have seen Bachmann hurt Perry with her strident and multi-pronged attack on the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately for her, while she hurt Perry, she probably killed her own campaign with how she overplayed this issue. And if that didn't end her campaign, Ed Rollins leaving -- reminding everyone that Bachmann hired him in the first place -- probably did.
Which leads us to Perry, who was staggered by the HPV issue but not knocked down. One has to wonder, however, if those body blows weakened the Texas governor. As the attacks from Santorum and Chris Wallace and others shifted to immigration, he had what might go down as a Dan Quayle moment with the infamous "heartless" comment.
And then there's the continued non-candidacy of Sarah Palin -- which is only multiplying the fear that all of this conservative-on-conservative crime might open the door for Mitt Romney to waltz to the nomination.
So that brings us to one of the Swim With The Sharks management theories. In a short chapter, the author lays out the brilliance of becoming every prospect's "second favorite" vendor if you can't easily be their number one. Huh? The author of Sharks says to be number two?
Indeed. To paraphrase, he says number one will screw up, or raise prices, or go out of business, or die, or something -- so, in fact, cultivate number 2 status and never worry about attacking number one. Now in my conversations with Cain, we have never discussed this theory. Since Cain's experience is as a businessman, I have to muse if this is part of the conscious strategy of the Cain campaign -- or just the result of his natural "happy warrior" personality.
He says only glowing things about the people who are competing with him for the job he wants now -- which is the job of opposing Obama. He was clearly the favorite opponent of all the candidates. He no doubt would win the "he's my second choice" sweepstakes among conservatives. That is related to the "I would support him if I thought he could win" crowd. Cain wins those hands down.
And now we've seen that number-two status pay incredible dividends in the Florida Straw Poll -- as the number ones did various iterations of dying, raising their prices, falling down on customer service, or going out of business. And we've seen Cain vault to number one in the hearts and minds of at least a portion of the voters who did not favor him as of just a week ago or so.
Now in case anyone sees this as an excuse or an illegitimate rise in the polls, it is not. Cain has been getting better in the last couple of debates and was outstanding in the last one, proclaimed the clear winner by Rush Limbaugh, Erick Erickson of Red State, and Ann Coulter. His aforementioned insertion of citizens into the name of the Tea Party movement is a subtle but brilliant move, and his response to Obama's "just math" comment by mentioning his own math background is simply priceless. This rise is merit-based.
The long odds against Cain's candidacy still exist, slightly diminished. I am sure he knows that. Being a top-tier candidate and one of the frontrunners will put new pressures on him and his campaign that they have not yet had to face. Just ask the Bachmann campaign how tough that can be.
But the essence of Herman Cain's solution-driven businessman candidacy still exists, too -- and such an essence may just be what the electorate is looking for in 2012. He may still be a long shot, but he's a much shorter shot than he has ever been. Don't be shocked by what happens.