05.21.11

Can Herman Cain Win It for the Tea Party?

He's a charming Southern black conservative with an American dream success story and the energy to whip crowds into a frenzy. Why the "pizza guy" could be this year's big surprise.

Herman Cain has "it." At pre-campaign appearances—part rally, part revival—he's had nonbelievers and businessmen alike leaping to their feet shouting "Amen!" And at high noon on Saturday at Centennial Park in Atlanta, this self-made American success story connected with 15,000 of his closest friends, who roared with approval throughout a stemwinder of a sermon, notably delivered without a teleprompter.

Announcing his candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the plainspoken but passionate Tea Party firebrand taps into a growing voter frustration. His address in Atlanta touched on economic policy, foreign policy, tax policy, the role of federal government and entitlement reform, but all wrapped in beguiling Southern charm and inspirational rhetoric about "a new American dream."

Throughout his life, Herman Cain has defied expectations. In rising from humble beginnings in the segregated South, graduating from Morehouse College and then Purdue University, working as a mathematician for the U.S. Navy, climbing his way up to the top of the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, Burger King, and Godfather's Pizza, heading the National Restaurant Association, and serving as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Cain succeeded because he didn't know that he could not. While the media and elites dismiss his candidacy as unserious, this only fuels his support among the faithful. The winner by popular acclaim of the recent Fox News GOP debate in South Carolina, Cain has vaulted ahead as the frontrunner among active candidates in a surprising Zogby poll, behind only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who still swears he is not running. But the "Herminator" does not even yet register on other polls.

In a splintered field without a real frontrunner, and with a total vacuum in the social conservative space, Cain could be this year's real surprise.

So many factors go into making a successful candidate for the presidency. From the perspective of a former operative, below are the factors I believe are important to actually getting elected.

Cain has vaulted ahead as the frontrunner among active candidates in a surprising Zogby poll.

Where Cain stands: The McKinnon Electability Index

The top 10 factors, using a 40-chad scale.

1. Rationale for running: "The American dream is under attack" from runaway debt, a stagnant economy, and a Democratic administration forcing a legislative agenda citizens don't want. A master class on constructing the narrative: Identifies the threat and opportunity, the victim and the villain, the solution and the hero.
2. Emotional connection: Nobody does it better (at least among those already declared).
3. Resonance/Relevancy of message: A colossus of conservatism.
4. Message discipline: Debate on point, enumerated answers.
5. Candidate preparation: A few debate answers left audience wanting to hear more. Needs immersion on the issues.
6. Life experience: True breadth of experience.
7. Political/government experience: Limited to work as a Fed chairman.
8. Fundraising strength: Limited so far.
9. Base: Doesn't really have one outside of Atlanta.
10. General-election appeal: As a self-identified American black conservative with a Reagan-like message, lots of crossover potential.
Total score: 26 chads out of 40

As vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-founder of No Labels and co-chair of Arts & Labs.