The Herman Cain Method

The press hints his campaign isn't serious. Doesn't its success suggest otherwise?

Herman Cain, are you running for president? Or are you just busing around the country, dropping into debates and Sunday talk shows to say you are, for vanity? Or so you can sell books
(that you buy yourself) and land a show on Fox News?

This is a stupid, silly and pointless question. The man is running. But that hasn’t stopped the media—forced to confront the “pizza magnate’s” (has this been fact-checked? did Godfather’s really make a magnate?) unexpected frontrunner status—from speculating about his motivations: Herman, are you for real?

Or from writing story after story on the candidate, based on such speculation and laced with skepticism: he’s your frontrunner but …

He’s spent only 33 days in Iowa this year (less only than Santorum, Bachmann, and Gingrich).

The media frames this as a problem.

From National Journal’s Naureen Khan and Alex Roarty: “Herman Cain Skips out on early states to push his new book; The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has risen to the upper echelon of the 2012 GOP field. Is his campaign selling a candidate or a hardcover?”

But even as he enjoys the fickle embrace of the party’s social conservatives, doubts are being raised about the straight-talking businessman’s legitimacy, and even his motives. Instead of capitalizing on his newfound momentum by hitting the campaign trail hard, Cain this week opted to spend most of his time promoting his book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, which just arrived in retail stores this week.

Rather than visit diners in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s signing books at Barnes & Noble outlets in Texas and Washington D.C., although his tour does also include several stops in South Carolina and Florida, two key primary states.

Reid J. Epstein of Politico, wrote today:

For much of this year Cain seemed to be enjoying his role as political novelty act—an entertaining sideshow at debates, and even an occasional presence on the early-state campaign trail—when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with speeches, television appearances and book-tour publicity.

But now that Cain, buoyed by bulging poll numbers, is demanding to be viewed as a credible contender for the GOP nomination, Cain’s greatest peril is that primary rivals, journalists and the political world broadly will grant that wish.

The New York Times’s Susan Saluny struck the same tone, but made an important allowance, in her story “Herman Cain is a Candidate Writing His own Campaign Rules”:

On a whirlwind trip through New York City this week that marked the beginning of a nearly monthlong book tour, Herman Cain chatted with the hosts of ABC’s “The View,” promoted his new memoir on Fox News, met local titans like Donald Trump, shared ideas with former Mayor Edward I. Koch and enjoyed power lunching in Midtown.

Mr. Cain, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, did all but one thing—campaign. Not in the traditional meet-the-public and kiss-the-babies sense, anyway.

Indeed, Cain’s campaign strategy is unconventional.

And it may very well be that Cain is more interested in promoting his book than becoming president. It may also very well be that Cain will not win. But he is campaigning, and it’s just as silly for reporters to suss out Cain’s seriousness as it is for them to try to measure the fire in Rick Perry’s belly.

But it is at least as troubling to see the media so dismissive of a campaign strategy that does not adhere to their travel itineraries or come straight out of their Iowa-New Hampshire-and onto the presidency playbook.

What makes the media’s resistance particularly odd, is that it often quite rightly points out that states like Iowa and New Hampshire wield outsize and distorting influence in presidential politics and the nation’s political economy. (It’s less often pointed that this dynamic is one that the media has created and exacerbated itself, by lavishing attention on and appointing bellwether status to these states.)

It’s not as if candidates have not successfully employed—let alone attempted—the bypass-Iowa strategy before.

Why should a book signing in Tennessee—an event, where Cain is presenting himself to potential voters—be any less meaningful than a campaign stop where he presents himself to potential voters in a coffee shop in rural Iowa? Why is Rick Perry, who appears in Iowa, but tends to avoid national press (at least those elements of it more critical than Fox and Parade magazine) any more “serious” than Cain, who has frequently taken the national stage, but appeared less in Iowa. Especially in 2011—when Cain can present himself to voters on the web, via Twitter, or on around-the-clock-cable—does it really matter?

Cain has us assured he’s serious, and provided a reasonable explanation of what he is up to and why:

Per Saluny:

When asked why he would launch a book tour while running for the presidential nomination, Mr. Cain said that “the two complement one another” and that the benefits go beyond raising his name recognition among voters—one of his main goals.

And one could argue that Cain has in fact been campaigning for years—building his brand through a radio show, a syndicated political column, his books, and speeches on the Koch brother circuit and his catchy if flawed 9-9-9 plan.

If anything, Cain’s tactics seem shrewd and far more fitting for these times than the frontloaded, retail politics model the media seems to be demanding of him—and which, incidentally have not served its strictest practitioners Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and John Huntsman (in New Hampshire) particularly well.

Meanwhile, as dismissive as the media has been of Cain’s early state strategy, his campaign does not appear to be suffering. He’s sitting pretty atop polls in Iowa and, according to The Des Moines Register, is of growing interest in the state. His buzz is also boosting his fundraising, which will allow him to hire more staffers and build his organization.

Whether this is enough to win the nomination is an open question. But the media should at least allow that Cain may just be playing it another way.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.