Herman Cain Keeps It Simple and Keeps Rising in the Polls

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 13 2011 8:04 PM

Simply Appealing

One explanation for the popularity of Herman Cain among Republicans.

Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain.
Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, speaks during the Republican Presidential debate on October 11, 2011.

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

A weak front-runner is challenged by a come-from-nowhere candidate wielding a tax plan. Then it was Bob Dole, Steve Forbes, and the “flat tax.” Now it’s Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and the “9-9-9 plan.” Republicans can be forgiven for having flashbacks to 1996.

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.

Fifteen years ago, one conservative summed up his enthusiasm for Dole by saying it was like kissing your sister. With Romney, it may be more like kissing a mannequin of your sister. Cain is now the third candidate, after Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, to rise in the polls as a challenger to the perceived front-runner: According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Cain is actually running ahead of Romney among Republicans, 27 percent to 23 percent. He is also pushing a catchy tax proposal that has won him a lot of attention.


But what really makes Cain different is that he is the most articulate advocate of the Gospel of Simple: the idea that solutions are not as complex as the experts say, and that much of our current mess has been caused by those preaching complexity.

At the last debate Cain took aim at Romney, asking him to name all 59 points in his economic plan. Romney responded that the economic picture was more complicated than that: “Simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.”Afterward Cain dismissed Romney’s “put down” him, saying “simplicity is genius.” If this sounds familiar, it’s a version of what Ross Perot used to say repeatedly.

This argument for simplicity resonates with Cain supporters like Diane Harris of Naples, Fla., who voted for Cain in a straw poll of conservative activists in Florida last month. “Because Romney is a politician and a bureaucrat he’d say that. Bureaucrats take forever. They never take the simple course to get anything accomplished. He has a big ’ole plan. We’re tired of that. There are common-sense ways to fix stuff but people keep adding more and more levels until it’s an anchor around your neck and you’re in the water.”

A listing of the people who preach complexity would closely resemble the cast of modern villains in politics today: lawyers, career politicians, establishment party bosses, and the media. Complexity is what's behind Romney's problem, because it's code for lack of principle and shifting positions. When Cain supporters and conservatives hear about complexity, they hear loopholes being created. As my colleague David Weigel points out , that’s what’s behind the power of the 9-9-9 plan: fairness. No one can get a lawyer to weasel them a better deal.

In this respect, Cain is not just the non-Romney, he is also the anti-Obama. The president sets marathon records for the length of his answers. This isn't know-nothingism—Cain’s support in the current Journal poll comes from college-educated voters.

This was the role Perry was supposed to play. It was also Donald Trump’s appeal. But Trump didn’t run, and Perry is still in a tailspin. Cain’s problem may be that he lacks the organization, which in turn may keep him from turning his support into a viable campaign. But this lack of organization is no deterrent to his supporters—in fact, it’s one of his advantages. It’s evidence of his authenticity.

Cain now must find some way to stay in his moment in the spotlight in a way that the other non-Romney candidates have not. His 9-9-9 plan has taken considerable flak from both the left, which thinks it hurts the poor, and the right, where anti-tax advocates like Grover Norquist worry about the sales tax. Cain also might have to answer for his support of the TARP bailout, which rankles the same Tea Party supporters who adore him.

The gospel of simple relies on the same thing hope and change did: the pleasing sound of lines confidently spoken. The downside of this simplicity is that it can be a mask for a candidate who isn’t doing his homework and doesn’t want to bother. That's what Cain's advisers who quit his campaign this summer charged: He wasn't really committed to doing the hard work of running for president. There’s a whiff of this in Cain’s answers to criticism. Responding to a critic of the sales tax portion of his plan Cain told the New Hampshire voter “are you happy with the current tax code? Do we know what’s in it? At least we know what’s in this.” That’s not really a reason. A lot of Cain’s answers lack the crispness of that 1994 debate with Bill Clinton.

In 1996, Forbes was such an unknown that Dole was able to define him and beat him once the voting started. It was a very negative campaign that bled Dole of money. That isn’t likely to be how the Cain and Romney matchup ends. Cain doesn’t have the money. He also endorsed Romney in 2008, which makes it harder to argue he has a disqualifying flaw. Cain has tapped into enthusiasm and is having his moment. Seeing how he turns that into votes is more complicated.


The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?


“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.


Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.