Herman Cain Is Leading the Polls in Iowa Without Really Even Trying

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 21 2011 7:27 PM

The Cain Mutiny

Can Herman Cain win Iowa without campaigning hard there? Iowans hope not.

Herman Cain.
Herman Cain

Photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

DES MOINES—Herman Cain has captured lightning in a bottle. That's the political cliché for the blast of popularity he's experiencing. But in Iowa, a state that has traditionally rewarded well-organized campaigns, the question is whether Cain is all lightning and no bottle. His supporters and political consultants are trying to get him to spend time and energy in the state, but he has a different plan.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

“He really doesn't have much of an organization,” says Jeffrey Jorgensen, the chairman of the Pottawattamie County Republican Party who supports Cain and calls him the “Anti-Obama.” “Since Ames, he has disappeared and has not been back.” Jorgensen says he’s been having conversations with the campaign "to get Herman back here, but for whatever reason he hasn't been back."

If Cain does well in Iowa, it could upend the entire premise of the caucus process: In order to win in Iowa, candidates must spend time in the state wooing the famously coddled voters with personal appearances and vast organizations.

There is a lot of head-scratching going on among the Republican political class over Cain’s reluctance to come pick up the support that appears to be his for the taking. He is very popular in the state, a finding confirmed by a University of Iowa poll that shows him with 37 percent support, 10 points ahead of Romney. Doing well in Iowa would offer a strong kickoff for his campaign against his better-funded rivals Romney and Rick Perry. The win would bring in money and give him momentum to compete with Romney in New Hampshire and Perry in South Carolina, states where each has advantages.

“He’s on a book tour more than a campaign tour,” says Dale Bjorkman, a retired Gateway computer employee, who attended a Romney event Thursday but said he was still considering Cain and Gingrich. Mac McDonald, the chairman of the Black Hawk County Republican Party, one of the largest counties in the state, says he has scheduled three events for Cain over the last few months. Each one has been canceled. “Something’s always come up,” he says. “We quit advertising that he’s going to be there.” MacDonald says he hasn’t heard from the campaign for two months.

Cain has been to Iowa 33 times, according to his campaign, which has four staffers in a suite of offices in Des Moines. Voters who have seen him gush about it. But Cain doesn’t seem to be planning to pick up the pace now that his moment has arrived. Cain hasn’t been back in the state since the Ames straw poll in August. He visits this weekend to attend the Iowa and Iowa State football games, and he will speak Saturday at a forum held by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition. But he is leaving the next day. According to his Iowa staff, his next trip to the state is scheduled for mid-November. After that, he has a visit planned for December, and, says Lisa Lockwood, his Iowa communications director, “I would anticipate he might make a showing here on caucus day.”

This is not the way it’s traditionally done. Candidates usually blanket the state. Some boast about visiting all 99 counties. Rick Santorum has been to more than 70 counties so far this year in 60 visits. Iowans assume Cain will follow this model. “He will come back and camp himself out here,” said Steve Armstrong, Chairman of the Linn County Republican Party. The time-consuming work is necessary, the theory goes, because Iowa voters are particularly discerning and because a caucus requires a more concerted effort to mobilize voters. Voters don’t just show up to flip a lever. They listen to hours of speeches from representatives of each candidate before they can record their preference. This requires a higher level of commitment, which campaigns usually stoke with careful cajoling.

“He’s running for president of the United States, not the president of Iowa,” says Lockwood, who is amiable even by Iowa standards. She says the campaign has been organizing in the key Republican areas and spreading the word through social media. The campaign isn’t likely to launch a big wave of commercials. The operation “is very lean. He is a business man. He doesn’t spend what he doesn’t have.”

In the end, says Lockwood, “I would be a little surprised if we don’t bring in a caucus win.” She bases that on the enthusiasm she’s seen from Iowa voters. One person saw her at Wal-Mart shopping in a Cain T-shirt and asked to volunteer. “It’s just a yay-positive spiral upward,” she says, describing the power of Cain’s appeal to the simple. “He has ‘kid logic’ that can’t be argued with. The example I use is my daughter. She was rinsing off her feet in the water in Florida, and I said, ‘You’re getting your pants wet.’ She looked at me and said ‘That’s what water does, Mom.’ That was so Herman Cain-esque.”

Organizations aren’t simply necessary to shuttle voters to the caucuses. They help put out brush fires, too. Cain recently caused himself a problem on the issue of abortion. When asked about his belief that abortion should not be legal even in the case of rape or incest, he said that in the case of rape, ultimately the decision was a personal one. Santorum, who is something of a town crier when it comes to responding first to his opponent’s mistakes said the stance was “the quintessential pro-choice position on abortion.” Cain has since clarified his position, but the Susan B. Anthony list, a group of conservative women who oppose abortion rights, blasted him in an email.

Cain also had to walk back his claim that he would release prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for U.S. hostages. One former staffer says that these examples show that Cain will talk himself out of his positions if you give him enough time. And Cain has also emphasized the details of his 9-9-9 tax plan to respond to criticism: In Detroit Friday highlighting “empowerment zones” where taxes would be lower, he said in certain instances it would be a “9-0-9 plan.”

For all of the conventional wisdom about the necessity of campaigning hard in Iowa, there are plenty of candidates in both parties who have done the spade work and come up empty. Lamar Alexander and John Edwards wound up faltering because they’d done so much work in Iowa they didn’t meet expectations. The same happened to Romney in 2008, which is why he’s approaching the state with caution now. (He’s only been to Iowa six times.) If the current two top contenders in the polls in Iowa wind up doing well, while states like Nevada and Florida scramble the early-selection process, 2012 may be remembered as the year that Iowa’s pre-eminent position finally cracked.

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