The Cain Train: What Herman Cain’s Popularity Says About The 2012 Election

Herman Cain

Is Herman Cain a serious candidate? Common sense says no. So why do recent polls say that many people take him seriously? One popular theory is that the Cain train is a sort of candidate bubble, supported and inflated by Mitt Romney. Romney wants fringe candidates like Herman Cain to get a flash of over-speculated media attention, and supports that attention by throwing them easy questions at the debates. Pretty soon all that positive sentiment will peak, burst, and fall back in with the single-digit support we usually reserve for obviously un-serious candidates – keeping more realistic choices like Rick Perry out of the way so Romney can clinch the GOP nomination.

It’s a seemingly strong theory. The idea of Mitt Romney supporting Herman Cain’s extremism fits in well with the duplicitous-politician, smoke-and-mirrors campaigning model. It’s the kind of ugly stuff we half-hope for and half-expect from candidates. But it gives Romney too much credit. So what’s going on? Are GOPers just really, really, really, really dumb? Are they total complete absolute idiots? I don’t think so. Herman Cain isn’t the product of ignorance. He’s the product of skepticism and mistrust.

For the Romney-inflated-Cain-bubble theory to work, Herman Cain would need to be – or at least appear to be – an attractive candidate. But by most measures of ‘attractive candidacy,’ Cain falls short. He’s spent very little time on the ground campaigning, he hasn’t been clear on key political issues (in a week, he flip-flopped on abortion, and on negotiating with terrorists), and, let’s face it, he just isn’t that eloquent or good sounding. The occasional soft ball isn’t enough here. If Mitt Romney’s been secretly propping Herman Cain up, he’s done an imperceptible job.

So if it isn’t Romney being tricky, why is Herman Cain so popular? It may have less to do with Romney and more to do with the voters. Here’s a theory: GOP voters actually, for the most part, use reason and judgment. They are not decidedly more ignorant than other voters. They, like Democrats, are incredibly mistrustful of our government. But they, unlike Democrats, have been asked to make a decision about who’d be a better choice to run things. And that mistrust breeds volatility at the polls.

Almost everybody mistrusts the government. The New York Times released a poll yesterday finding that 89 percent of Americans don’t trust people in our government to do the right thing. Key measures of voter confidence, like Congressional approval ratings, are at all-time lows. So everybody mistrusts the government at alarmingly higher and higher rates. The fact that a legitimate Cain train theory rests on the assumption that Romney is a facetious liar who’s playing the system for his own gain kind of proves how deep the mistrust goes.

This may be completely, unspeakably obvious, but a stable political system with voters who make stable, rational decisions can’t happen in a climate where there isn’t much trust. Voters are ready to jump ship on a candidate after a few gaffs (see: Rick Perry) and join the bandwagon of an equally guilty double-talker because they were never really that committed to Rick Perry in the first place. Democratic observers might view this as insane, but who’s to say we wouldn’t see a similar situation we rational observers were being asked to make this sort of decision right now? As the New York Times noted in that poll, “the combustible climate helps explain the volatility of the presidential race.” A lack of trust might be what turns left-field candidates like Herman Cain into real contenders.

To say fringe candidates turned frontrunners like Herman Cain are just bubbles created and maintained by Mitt Romney is a mistake. And to say GOP voters are idiots is an even bigger mistake. The Cain train may show that we’re coming to a point where deep mistrust is fueling desperate and unpredictable voting decisions. A truly, very, really scary thought.

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