A month ago it was unthinkable. That is a head-to-head match-up between GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain and President Obama. It's still unlikely, but Cain's quick rise to the top of the GOP presidential candidate heap makes Cain versus Obama now at least thinkable. Cain certainly talks like he believes he can snatch the nomination from the presumptive GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. With the merciful sink to political non-entity and media darling status of Palin and Michelle Bachman, he's got a media starved for a new flavor of the month infatuated with him and headlining any and every utterance by him. He's got the Tea Party and conservative evangelical zealots cheering him on and pumping up his numbers in straw polls. He'll probably fatten his coffers with some deeper pocket conservative dollars.
If Cain can convince that his candidacy is not simply hype and bombast to sell his book and get a gig on Fox News, and that his tax plan won't soak the middle class and poor at the expense of the rich, his GOP presidential candidacy would be intriguing on several counts. GOP leaders would crow that it proves savage and relentless pounding of the GOP as a party of bigots is a falsehood. It would give voters the sharpest contrast in living political memory of contrasts in style and political philosophy between two presidential candidates. One is a flamboyant, outspoken, ultra-conservative, Christian fundamentalist, cut government, cutting, and unshakably pro-big business advocate. The other is a cerebral, moderate, pro labor, and expansive government advocate. The ultimate intrigue is that both are black. A Cain-Obama match up would be a textbook showdown on which direction Americans want government to go in the coming years. The debates between the two over this question would be fierce and would tightly draw the economic and ideological battle lines.
A Cain presidential candidacy would also pose two other challenges. It would test whether, as he fondly boasts, he could pry a significant number of blacks away from backing Obama and into backing him. He told Fox News that in a hypothetical general election match-up against Obama he'd secure at least one-third of the black vote. He didn't stop there.
He told an ABC Interviewer that blacks won't vote for him because of his color but because of his ideas. If Cain is right and he can dent, by even a few percentage points, the solid wall of support Obama gets from black voters that proved pivotal in his breakthrough election wins in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania and locked up the White House for him, then it would indeed be a monumental feat for him and the GOP. Then presuming that his support among the GOP base holds up, the election could be a real horse race.
But Cain saying that a number of blacks will vote for him doesn't make it so. Polls show that despite some grumblings, talk of disappointment, and even a concerted campaign by some left-leaning blacks to hector Obama, African Americans still overwhelmingly approve his performance. And even those who raise some eyebrows that he's not doing enough or could do more on black unemployment and poverty still stoutly defend him and blame GOP racists and obstructionists for sabotaging every initiative he puts forth and for creating massive political misery for his administration. They will not break ranks with him in 2012.
Cain will have to get massive doses of Super Pac and GOP National Committee fundraising dollars to stay close to Obama. But he will also have to get white votes, a clear majority of their votes. Polls show that he's within striking distance. But those are early season polls, based more on name identification, fad, and frustration, than any indication of deep voter sentiment. At first glance, Cain seems to show that GOP conservatives, the Tea Party flock, and maybe even conservative independents will punch the Cain ticket. They've been the biggest reason for his poll surge to the top. But if he's there in November will they really be there for him?
A Yale study in 2006 found that a significant number of white Republicans and white independents did not support a black GOP candidate in past congressional races. But in the November 2010 mid-term elections Black GOP congressional candidates Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina got a majority of white votes and easily beat their Democratic opponents. But West and Scott won in lockdown GOP districts, and against weak, underfunded, Democratic opponents. Their wins were regional wins with absolutely no national implications.
Cain and Obama would be playing for the highest political stakes in the race to or back to the White House. This will take money, top endorsements, experience, a solid organization and most importantly the ability to instill confidence in a majority of voters that the winner can handle the towering problem of governance. An ideologically driven, ordained Baptist minister and businessman with no political office experience, as Cain is, against a sitting president, defies all political odds. But for now anyway an Obama-Cain match-up is not an unthinkable possibility.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com