GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s wipe out of the GOP presidential field in the Florida straw poll got much attention partly because he was so far behind presumptive GOP Presidential front runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But it also got attention because it seemed to refute the relentless charge that the GOP is racist. Herman Cain is black, grew up poor, and did not shy away from talking about black issues during his stint as a radio broadcaster. Despite his unabashed, spout of ultra conservative views, he doesn’t shirk away from his blackness. His win in Florida, not a Northern state, among virtually a lily white slate of voters does seem to make a case that the knock of racism against the GOP is overblown.
It doesn’t. True, at times, straw polls provide some gauge of the support a presidential contender has among the general party electorate. Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995 won the Florida straw poll and went on to win the GOP presidential nomination. But they were seasoned, name recognizable, GOP stalwarts, and the clear front runners for the nomination. Herman Cain could hardly be considered any of those things. And the slightly more than 2,500 voters that bothered to cast a ballot in the straw poll could hardly be considered a representative sample of the GOP electorate.
In any case straw poll votes are pure symbolism. More times than not the front running, that is electable, candidates, either spend little time, energy and resources bothering to court those likely to participate in a straw tally. Romney spent minimal time in the state, and Perry took it seriously only because as the new kid on the presidential block, and with dismal showings so far in the GOP presidential debates and mounting questions about his conservatism, Florida was his chance to get momentum going again in his campaign. That’s why Herman Cain sneaked to the top. It was more a message to Perry that there are a lot of conservatives who have serious doubts about him and his candidacy. Herman Cain was the perfect foil to register that doubt. The real name of the game is the primaries where GOP voters will turn out en masse and determine who will be their standard bearer.
Cain’s candidacy, race and win in Florida meant little because likely will not be around for the long gruel of the primaries or if he is will be a minor footnote on the ballot when the serious business of courting voters, state officials, and party leaders begins in Florida and the other key primary states. But let’s say that he’s still a viable candidate during the primary run, and has a real shot at being the GOP presidential choice, the evidence is strong that Herman Cain wouldn’t get very far and the issue then would be his race.
In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans were 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe. The study also found that in the near twenty year stretch from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the greater majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate. In the November 2010 mid-term elections more than 30 black GOP candidates ran in congressional primaries. The majority of voters or a significant percent of the voters in these districts were white. The black GOP candidates all went down to crushing defeat with two exceptions.
The exceptions were congressional candidates Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina. Both got a majority of white votes and easily beat their Democratic opponents. But West and Scott won in lockdown GOP districts, and against weak, underfunded, Democratic opponents. Their wins were regional wins with absolutely no national implications.
Former three-term New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, one time chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and previously chair of New Hampshire’s GOP has his finger firmly on the inner pulse of the GOP conservative and mainstream. In an interview after hearing the candidate’s views in appearances earlier this year in the state told what Cain’s likely fate would be among conservatives if he ever managed to get out the GOP presidential contender box. He said he was willing to listen to Cain but said that his pick for the GOP 2012 presidential contender would have to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan as well as a politician with experience.
There’s much hyperbole in the Reagan analogy. None of the current crop of GOP contenders will ever be mistaken for Reagan in style, charisma, appeal, and virtual party deification. But there’s truth to the Reagan analogy when it’s remembered that a big part of Reagan’s appeal was his racially coded pandering on states’ rights and his veiled anti-civil rights appeals. A black GOP candidate no matter how rabidly conservative would be unable to totally overcome let alone allay the racial antipathies and fears that always lurk among a large segment of conservative white voters, when the White House is at stake.
No matter how many meaningless straw polls Herman Cain wins, he won’t be the GOP candidate to change that.