Like many observers of the Republican presidential primary race, I was surprised by Herman Cain's rise in the polls to catch Mitt Romney as the front-runner. But a new survey by Public Religion Research Institute reveals that Cain's success in the primary campaign parallels his success in business. Cain has triumphed, not by overpowering the competition, but by creating a niche based on his competitors' weaknesses.
As an executive at Pillsbury, Cain was tapped to head up the lackluster Godfather's Pizza after his company somewhat incidentally acquired it in a larger deal in 1985. While it's not true that Godfather's pizza was literally on the verge of bankruptcy when Cain took the helm, the company was clearly troubled. When he left in 1996, it hadn't caught up with larger competitors like Pizza Hut or Domino's, but the company was on solid financial footing.
Cain succeeded largely by understanding the weaknesses of two distinct groups of competitors: the large chains as well as local mom and pop outlets. Unable to go toe-to-toe with the larger chains on quantity, Cain focused on quality and launched a simple ad campaign with a two-word tagline: "more topping." To contend with the smaller and more unpredictable neighborhood outlets, Cain also cut down the menu to emphasize its core pizza product, kept prices competitive, and instituted franchise-wide quality controls to ensure consistency across stores. In other words, when it came to business, Cain was not an overpowering juggernaut. Instead, he was a charismatic strategic opportunist who thrived by exploiting his rivals' shortcomings.
This brief history of Cain's business strategy, combined with insights from a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute, clarify Cain's rise in the Republican presidential primary race. Especially in the GOP primary race, where white evangelical Protestants play a prominent role, candidates need to connect with voters on both shared political and religious values. The survey shows that the other frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, each have a weakness among evangelical voters. Cain has benefited from both.
Perhaps in part because of the recent controversy over whether Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is a Christian religion, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, white evangelical Protestant voters are far more likely to identify with Romney's political views than his religious beliefs. About 1 in 5 evangelical voters say that of the Republican presidential candidates, Romney's political views are most closely aligned with their own, while only 8 percent say the same of his religious beliefs. On the other hand, as I warned back in September, Rick Perry may have erred too far on the side of sectarian religious rhetoric without establishing himself as a political heavyweight. While 22 percent of evangelical voters say that Perry's religious beliefs are closest to their own, only 12 percent say they most identify with his political views.
At least for white evangelical Protestant voters, Cain seems to have settled into a void that neither Romney nor Perry can fill. He surpasses both Romney and Perry on political affinity, with 26 percent of evangelical voters reporting that Cain is the Republican presidential candidate whose political views are closest to their own, while rivaling Perry in his ability to connect with voters on religion. Twenty percent of white evangelical voters say that Cain's religious beliefs resonate most with their own.
Cain's first real test will come in early January, when the Iowa caucus rolls around. A new CNN/TIME/ORC poll, released on Oct. 26, showed Romney with a slight lead over Cain (24 percent and 21 percent, respectively), and Perry tied with Newt Gingrich at a distant 10 percent. Since success in Iowa rides on the candidates' ability to appeal to the state's white evangelical Republican base, Cain's ability to combine both religious and political appeal could solidify his advantage over Rick Perry, and even edge out Romney, who has been focusing on other early states like New Hampshire.
We can see plainly from these numbers that none of the candidates have an outright, across-the-board advantage. But Cain's ability to appeal to white evangelical Protestants on religious and political values places him in a distinctive position among the candidates vying for the support of this crucial Republican demographic. It explains his emergence as Romney's co-front-runner. What remains to be seen is whether Cain can move beyond his role as canny opportunist to develop a campaign that is established more on his own strengths than his opponents' weaknesses.
Follow Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/publicreligion