Covering the Cain Campaign

Herman Cain's probably not a serious candidate. That doesn't mean the press shouldn't cover him.

If you headed out early for the Memorial Day weekend, you probably missed an interesting bit of blogosphere back-and-forth about how seriously to take Herman Cain’s run for the White House—and, more broadly, about how the press should cover presidential campaigns.

Cain, for people who haven’t heard of him—which means most people—is an African-American pizza chain CEO-turned-conservative talk show host who has mounted a seemingly quixotic but, to date, surprisingly successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. A Gallup poll released Thursday had him attracting 8 percent of the vote in the GOP field. A CNN survey out the next day gave him 10 percent, and Talking Points Memo reports that a PPP survey of Ohio Republicans puts his support there even higher, at 12 percent.

Those numbers put Cain in a competitive position, and well ahead of purported serious candidates like Tim Pawlenty and John Huntsman. And they’re even more impressive when you take Cain’s low name recognition into account. In that Gallup poll, for example, only about one-third of Republican voters were familiar with his candidacy.

In a pair of posts last week, Nate Silver made the case that these numbers mean Cain’s candidacy can’t be dismissed, despite his scant political experience. Campaign-watchers trying to suss out Cain’s viability “have a quandary on our hands,” Silver wrote:

• Candidates with electoral resumes as thin as Mr. Cain’s have very poor track records. But none of them have polling that was as impressive as Mr. Cain’s.
• Candidates with polling that looks like Mr. Cain’s — with numbers in the high single digits or low double digits despite very low name recognition — have an exceptionally good track record. But all of them were far more credentialed than Mr. Cain.

That dilemma, Silver wrote, is especially immediate for the political press, which has to make decisions in real time about how to allocate its attention. And while the press has mostly ignored Cain—Chris Cilizza’s look at the GOP field, published in the wake of those polls, doesn’t even mention him—Silver argues that “it’s important for the press to err toward the inclusive side,” both to avoid killing an otherwise viable campaign for want of coverage, and because failing to cover a candidate who is connecting with voters would be a sign that the press “has become misaligned with public sentiment.”

As it happens, Silver is probably wrong about Cain’s prospects for seriously contesting for the nomination. But there are good reasons for the press to pay attention to his candidacy anyway.

Here’s why he’s probably wrong. Silver’s second post notes that there are competing theories about how nominations are decided, which he glosses as the elite-driven, or “top-down” theory, and the populist, or “bottom-up” theory. As a self-declared bottom-upper, Silver weights Cain’s strong poll standing heavily, and he discounts his limited connections to the party’s establishment.

But that “elites vs. base” framework, while useful, is incomplete. Even among a party’s base, there are competing factions, and Cain is not so much a “populist” candidate as a favorite, for the moment, of the GOP’s Tea Party faction. Passionate support among cohort that has allowed him to reach respectable polling levels with limited name recognition. But the problem, as Josh Putnam notes in a very interesting post, is that the eventual winner of either party’s nomination “is not a factional candidate, but one who can build a coalition.” And coalition-building is something that Cain, for all the enthusiasm he’s generated, has yet to show any aptitude for. (The same might be said of a certain former governor of Alaska, who is sure to attract her share of media coverage if she declares her candidacy.)

So why does Cain’s campaign merit press coverage? For one thing, even on weighty issues—and issues don’t get much weightier than presidential elections—journalists should be alert to good stories, whether or not they are likely to “matter” in a conventional sense. And, as Jason Horowitz has just shown with a profile in The Washington Post, Herman Cain is a good story. The son of a chaffeur, he became the first college graduate in his family and went on to a very successful business career. He is, with some justification, entertainingly self-confident. (From Horowitz: “Being an overachiever, Cain said, ‘is an understatement.’”) He refers to himself in the third person, and goes by THEHermancain on Twitter.

More substantively, a campaign like Cain’s, even if not a real threat to win, can provide a window to important issues. Horowitz is appropriately skeptical of Cain’s presidential prospects, but, he writes, his campaign raises some serious questions:

Who’s calling the shots in the Republican Party—the elite establishment or the grass-roots activists? What does the popularity of a black tea party hero say about the movement’s relationship with race? Is the goal of the upstarts in the Republican field the presidency or a cushy Fox news gig? And in the tea party era, do quixotic candidates tilt at windmills or reap electoral windfalls?

And while Horowitz’s profile offers scant discussion of policy, there’s room for the press to do more there, too. Cain has come under scrutiny for his amateurish understanding of foreign policy, but probably more consequential is that he is attracting non-trivial support while, as Horowitz writes, adopting far-right economic policy positions that include speaking “with reverence of the gold standard.” That means there is an opportunity for reporters to explain—rather than assuming readers know—what the gold standard is and why it was abandoned, to fit Cain’s surge into the general rightward drift of economic conversation, and to explore what impact his candidacy may have on other, more viable, candidates.

Doing that sort of reporting now will prepare both journalists and readers to more intelligently scrutinize the candidates who come to the fore as this campaign grinds on—and that’s something we can all agree is important.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,