Sabato's Crystal Ball

Herman Cain and the Non-Politician Politician

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics October 6th, 2011

In the last election cycle, several “non-politician politicians” — candidates who have never held public office who ran for a major office — went from obscurity to high office.

These non-politician politicians include Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) and Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), all 2010 winners. Bob Turner, the upset Republican winner of the New York Ninth Congressional District special election last month, is another good example.

And now, a non-politician politician — Herman Cain — is making what appears to be, at first blush, a credible campaign for the highest office in the land.

As Rick Perry’s campaign has stumbled, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has gained. The last four major national polls — conducted by Quinnipiac, ABC News/The Washington Post, Fox News and CBS News — have each shown Cain with 17 percentage points of support in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, good enough to tie or beat Perry in three of them (Mitt Romney led three of the polls and was tied with Cain in the other).

Will the Republican Party — especially in light of Chris Christie’s decision not to run — opt for Cain, who has never held public office, and who lost his only prior election (a 2004 GOP U.S. Senate primary in Georgia)?

Almost certainly not. A Cain nomination would be an aberration of historic proportions: American political parties typically don’t nominate people without previous officeholding experience for president.

There have been only a handful of major party presidential nominees who had not previously held elected office. Most of those were ex-military men.

Generals were popular presidential nominees in the middle of the 19th century. Prior to the Civil War, the Whig Party (effectively the precursor to the modern Republican Party) nominated Mexican War generals with no political experience in back-to-back elections: victor Zachary Taylor in 1848 and loser Winfield Scott in 1852. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln sacked Union commander George McClellan for his timidity in taking the war to the confederacy; so in 1864, McClellan made political war on Lincoln as the nominee of the Democratic Party, and fared about as well against Lincoln as he did against Robert E. Lee.

After the war, Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War, was elected as a Republican to the presidency twice, in 1868 and 1872. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (no relation to Winfield Scott) was the Democratic nominee in 1880, and he lost to Republican James Garfield in the closest presidential election (by popular vote) in American history.

Three-quarters of a century passed before Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allies in Europe during World War II, was elected president in 1952.

Needless to say, Herman Cain is not Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ike was the last major party presidential nominee to not have notched a previous political victory before becoming president. Since his last campaign in 1956, neither major party has nominated a political newcomer for the top job in the land — starting with the 1960 campaign, every Democratic or Republican nominee since then had served as a U.S. senator, governor or vice president.

Perhaps the candidate most similar to Cain who actually won the nomination was Wendell Willkie, the corporate lawyer and New Deal critic who shocked the world at the 1940 Republican convention to win the right to (unsuccessfully) challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Willkie’s nomination came in a much different era from now, when the votes of primary voters hardly mattered at all: There were 3.2 million of them in 1940’s Republican primaries, and only 21,000 cast their votes for Willkie. Willkie won the nomination in 1940 thanks in large part to the desires of internationalist eastern Republicans, such as publishing titans Ogden Reid of the New York Herald Tribune and Henry Luce of Time magazine.

Cain’s rise has been reflected in his improved poll numbers — in addition to his national polling bump, the Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling reported that Cain was leading in three states they polled over the weekend, Nebraska, North Carolina and West Virginia — and also, specifically, in his performance in a straw poll in Florida a week and a half ago.

At the Presidency 5 straw poll, Cain won 986 votes, or about 37% of the 2,657 votes cast. Meanwhile, in the Florida Republican primary held in Jan. 2008, 1.95 million Floridians voted. In other words, the straw poll is reflective of the desires of only a tiny sliver of Florida Republicans, let alone Republicans nationally. In fact, the tiny number of votes Cain took in the straw poll compared with the large Florida Republican electorate is fairly similar to Willkie’s tiny percentage of the total vote in the 1940 primaries. The big difference is that, because of the importance of primaries and caucuses, the people, not the party bosses or eastern publishers, pick presidential nominees now. And even if the wealthy and powerful did pick nominees now, they certainly wouldn’t pick Cain, even if some activists might.

Yes, Cain’s polling numbers are skyrocketing, but then again, this Republican primary battle has been so crazy that another non-politician politician (Donald Trump — remember him?) once led national polls. In fact, as New York Times commentator Nate Silver pointed out recently, 10 different individuals have led at least one national Republican primary poll this year. Cain may very well be a placeholder candidate — a person gaining support in polls and straw polls not because he actually has a chance of winning, but because Republicans are just unsettled and don’t see anyone in the field they are ready to rally around just yet. With the primaries and caucuses still (hopefully!) a few months away, Republicans remain unsettled, so some are going with Cain, a person they like but may not ultimately back for the most powerful job in the world.

Cain has a lot going for him; he has a sunny, Reagan-esque disposition and has an easy-to-remember, slogan-like economic plan: his 9-9-9 proposal (which represent his proposed national income, business and sales tax rates). Whether his proposal would stand up to actual scrutiny is, of course, a different matter.

The same can be said for Cain’s background and lack of elective experience.

But who knows? Perhaps the good showings by the non-politician politicians in senatorial and gubernatorial races were precursors to the biggest upset winner in American presidential history. Or perhaps Cain, like Trump before him, will come crashing back to Earth by the time the real voting starts.