Herman Cain: Social Conservatives' New Darling at Values Voter Summit

Cain coming in second in the Values Voters straw poll reveals voters aren't happy with the "frontrunners."

Evan Vucci / AP

A few hours after Mitt Romney’s politely received speech to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, I went looking for a Romney supporter in the crowd. Someone pointed me toward John Hocevar, an insurance company CEO and anti-abortion activist. “The idea of our nation being led by a Mormon, I won’t say it’s abhorrent to me, but it’s certainly not the ideal,” he said. “But if Romney is the candidate, I would devote time, effort, and resources to get even him elected.” At the religious-right conference, which drew most of the Republican presidential field, that was as close as I could find to a ringing endorsement of the frontrunner.

But if social conservatives don’t want Romney, the results of the conference’s straw poll suggest that they’re still far from settling on an anti-Romney.

Romney actually won the Values Voter Summit straw poll in 2007, when he was seen as the more conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. This time, though, he got only got 4 percent of the vote. But Rick Perry, who just a few months ago was supposed to unite the anti-Romney base, tied with onetime front-runner Michele Bachmann for a pitiful fourth place, winning only 8 percent. Thanks to his super-organized followers, Ron Paul came in first, as he often does at these things—many Paulites seem to have registered for the event just so they could vote for him. And after him, with an impressive 23 percent, was Herman Cain, the name on everyone’s lips at the summit, the latest beneficiary of desperate conservatives’ mercurial hopes. (Rick Santorum, usually written off by pundits, came in third.)

“The big vote for Herman Cain shows that most people are not happy with Romney or Perry,” said Phyllis Schlafly, anti-feminist doyenne and founder of the Eagle Forum. Perry, she said, “is just wrong on some major issues,” including immigration and the HPV vaccine. With enough political skill, she said, he could overcome these weaknesses, “but I just don’t see him doing it yet.”

Cain has surged into the vacuum left by Perry, becoming the new darling of social conservatives. In some ways, this is an odd development. During his wildly crowd-pleasing speech on Friday, he affirmed his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. “So let me just set the record straight,” he said. “I believe in life from conception, period. No exceptions.” Still, he has little record as a leader on social issues. A dual voter guide distributed by the National Organization for Marriage and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List gave him relatively poor marks. He and Romney were the only two of seven candidates listed who refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s pro-life pledge. According to the guide, Cain also refused to support fetal pain legislation. He and Paul were the only candidates listed who don’t back an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.

Nevertheless, the crowd at the Values Voter Summit loved him. At least part of this is about race. Conservatives are generally infuriated by the assumption that racial resentment animates their anti-liberalism, and Cain seems to absolve them. “I am so intrigued by the fact that we could have two blacks running against each other,” said Tony DeBenedittis, a retired Virginia art teacher. “Maybe that will wipe out all this racist BS that they’re doing right now.”

At the same time, Cain assures his audience that America needn’t change any further to accommodate racial minorities. During his speech, he mocked a reporter who asked him if he was angry about American racism. “I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the great nation United States of America,” he boomed to cheers and applause. His voice incredulous, he added, “What's there to be angry about? Angry?”

As a candidate, though, Cain remains largely untested, with little political experience or ground organization. There’s no reason to think that his surge is any more enduring than those of Trump, Bachmann, or Perry. And so, ironically, the Romney camp should actually be heartened by the conference. The people there might not like him, but they haven’t figured out how to stop him either.