12.03.11

Herman Cain's Departure Helps Other Candidates, but Which Ones?

The ex-pizza executive is out—shaking up the wild-and-crazy GOP race. But sorting out who wins and who loses takes some doing.

He's out! Herman Cain made it official Saturday after a date night with his wife, Gloria, and a morning meeting with top supporters in Atlanta. Cain announced that he is dropping out of the presidential race amid the drip-drip-drip of scandals that were dogging his candidacy.

From his latest ad buys in Iowa to his rousing Friday stump speech in all-important South Carolina to the newly formed (and unironically named) booster group Women for Herman Cain, Cain had been giving the distinct impression that he was not ready to give up the fight. But the latest poll for The Des Moines Register showed Cain at a startling 8 percent among likely Iowa caucusgoers, a number that was at 12 percent last Sunday when the four-day poll began, but cratered to 6 percent after Ginger White came forward with her accusation of a long-term affair with the former pizza magnate. Before Cain withdrew his candidacy, Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll, told The Daily Beast that Cain was down from his best numbers in Iowa before the latest scandal, but that l’affaire Ginger may have been last straw for Iowans who had planned to back him in the crucial January caucuses.

“It’s sort of a death by a thousand cuts,” SeIzer says. “I don’t think it’s just this one thing that’s done him in. But if there have been enough things that have put him on the edge, maybe this tipped him over.” Polls in South Carolina and Florida showed Cain suffering a similar fate in those early states.

So now that Cain is out of the race, who wins, who loses, and who wishes the Herman Cain Train had never left the station?

Let’s start with winners.

Newt Gingrich: With polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida all showing Gingrich building a substantial lead over Mitt Romney, the former House speaker could be peaking at the perfect moment to mop up Cain’s conservative supporters in the Anybody-But-Mitt-Romney primary. A Bloomberg poll conducted in November showed that a plurality of Cain’s supporters would pick Gingrich as their second choice in the race, with Rick Perry as their third choice. With Perry’s electability in serious doubt, let’s put the Perry people in Gingrich’s column and call this a two-man race.

Mitt Romney: Newt Gingrich has not picked up his reputation for being a “verbal weapon of mass destruction” for no reason. Poor kids without a work ethic? Eradicating communism from the Congress? As the verbose Georgian expounded on his latest ideas before rapt conservative audiences this week, you could almost see him weaving the rope to hang himself. Romney’s team knows their enemy’s weakness, and understands that the four weeks left before the Iowa caucuses are more than enough time for Gingrich to blow himself up, if Romney can’t manage to take him out himself.

Barack Obama: Is this a Republican primary or a clown show? With the GOP field stuck in a quicksand of its own scandals, flubs, and sheer mayhem, the otherwise vulnerable president seems to be getting a free pass from Republicans as they circle their wagons and commit suicide. Even with his own approval rating at a historically low 43 percent in Gallup’s latest tracking poll, Obama still beats the generic Republican running against him. Where are Jeb Bush and Chris Christie when their party needs them? Even more to Obama’s advantage, with Cain out, the Republican field loses its only dose of racial diversity and leaves minority voters with a set of very white people to choose from.

L’affaire Ginger may have been last straw for Iowans who had planned to back him in the crucial January caucuses.

Losers:

Mitt Romney: Yes, a winner and a loser. Isn’t that always Romney’s fate in life? With no more Cain, Romney suddenly seems to be at the mercy of events and other people’s missteps, assuming the primary suddenly becomes a two-man race between him and the whip-smart Gingrich. After five years of laying the groundwork for a perfect presidential campaign, Romney has become so perfect he’s actually annoying grassroots conservatives who want passion and “authenticity,” not an M.B.A. and a talent for telling them what he thinks they want to hear. A Cain-less primary will focus Republican voters’ minds in a hurry, and Romney still seems incapable of getting 80 percent of them to go along with the gag and just pick him for president.

Newt Gingrich: Like Romney, the end of the Cain train could be a double-edged machete for Gingrich as well. Without the Cain sideshow, Gingrich becomes reporters’ No. 1 Google search for the next six months. From the bills he passed as speaker to the topics and attendees of his $60,000-a-pop speeches to what he really did for Freddie Mac as a “historian,” the wild dingoes of the Washington press corps will spend their time gnawing through Gingrich’s 30-plus years of Washington insiderdom, even as he sells himself as a Beltway outsider as horrified as the next guy by what’s happening under the Capitol’s dome.

Gloria Cain: As her husband bows out of the race, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the woman who tried to stay out of the public eye, but has been dragged into it nonetheless in the worst way possible. Campaigns come and go, but some candidates seem to have a way of hurting their families for a lifetime.