The Cain phenomenon, which is real and growing, reflects a fundamental discontent and frustration the American people have with the political system and with Washington. The Republican side has had at least five front-runners thus far. The same pattern that was evident last year, when Tea Party candidates such as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio won Senate seats, is clear here: the more an outsider you are, the more credibility you have with an electorate that is sick and tired of politics as usual.
But make no mistake: Cain is now the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Cain leads among likely Republican primary voters with 27 percent, followed by Romney at 23 percent and Perry with 16 percent. Of all of the Republican presidential candidates, Cain has the best ratings, as 52 percent of Republican primary voters say they have positive feelings about him and 6 percent say they have negative feelings about him.
The Cain supporters are Tea Party supporters, anti-Romney conservatives, and high-interest GOP primary voters who were responsible for making first Michele Bachmann, and more recently Rick Perry, front-runners in the Republican primary race. Among Tea Party supporters, Cain’s rating is even higher than it was among Republican primary voters—69 percent have a favorable impression while 5 percent have an unfavorable one. Meanwhile, Perry’s support among Tea Party voters has dropped to 15 percent from 45 percent in August. And among Republicans who identify themselves as “very conservative,” Cain’s favorable rating is 72 percent.
Herman Cain is the real deal. Whether he gets the nomination or not, Republican voters are enamored with his unique combination of intriguing life story, optimism, new ideas for the future, and boldness that none of the other candidates has shown. As an outsider, Cain has benefited from the electorate’s dissatisfaction first by becoming a protest candidate, and now, in light of The Wall Street Journal poll, a serious presidential candidate.
Poll after poll suggests that Republicans are looking for fresh faces, new ideas, and most of all, optimism about our future. Cain offers all of the above. As an outsider, his strategy of campaigning all over the country but avoiding retail politics is what has appealed to Republican voters in the last several months, as Cain’s popularity has soared. His candidacy offers a down-to-earth authenticity, a sense of positivity and enthusiasm, and a non-politician who gives succinct, direct answers.
But it would be a mistake to view Cain just within the prism of the Republican primary. His surge in the polls is a manifestation of the electorate’s widespread dissatisfaction, which has been evident not only through the Tea Party movement on the right, but also through the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left. The Occupy Wall Street protests have put tens of thousands of people on the streets in more than 25 cities.
There is even discontent in the center, as more than 400,000 people in the past week or so have registered Facebook “likes” for Americans Elect, a process that is building support as dysfunctionality in Washington grows. This movement, which I am working with, will hold an online nominating convention and achieve ballot access in all 50 states for a centrist, bipartisan ticket.
The larger message of the Cain phenomenon is that the unpredictable has happened over and over and over again this year. Political certainty and the normal rules of political success have been thrown out the window. Outsiders with seemingly no chance of success jump to the top of primary polls, movements that did not exist weeks ago dominate major American cities, and organizations in the center that promise bipartisanship generate hundreds of thousands of positive reactions in virtually no time at all.
America is changing. Who the candidates will be and how many parties ultimately run candidates are entirely unknown.