So who will Republicans pick to run against Obama? With Newt Gingrich compromised by his personal life, Ron Paul too radical to ever expand his base in the GOP beyond its staunch libertarian wing, Tim Pawlenty too bland to make a favorable impression, Rick Perry too prone to faux pas (viz., his arguments about Texas secession), and both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmman widely deemed to be unelectable, only two options remain:
There can be little doubt that Mitt Romney is the undisputed frontrunner. He has many outstanding advantages, including an excellent record in the business world as a shrewd entrepreneur and fixer-upper, which will endear him to economic conservatives and independents; an image as an ideological moderate, one facilitated by his tenure as governor of Massachusetts and his refusal to cater to the GOP’s more extreme groups like the Tea Party; wide name recognition from his last bid for the Republican nomination in 2008; stalwart support among influential conservative leaders like Rush Limbaugh; strong showings in two of the Republican Party’s four earliest primaries (New Hampshire and Nevada); and, most important of all, a loyal and financially well-endowed fundraising base that contains many of the party’s richest and most powerful donors, all of whom see in Romney the type of plutocratic leadership they yearn to again find in Washington since their last champion, George W. Bush, left the White House.
That said, it cannot be denied that Romney’s candidacy has several major flaws. His support as Governor of Massachusetts of a health care reform program very similar to the one put in place by Barack Obama will undeniably hurt him among the party’s base of diehard conservatives, perhaps more so than is currently evident in the polls (surveys suggest that most Republican primary voters aren't aware of this aspect of his record and would think less of him if they knew about it). In addition, his flip-flopping on social issues like abortion and gay rights will hardly endear him to a party that has become increasingly intractable on questions of cultural policy. Finally, there is the fact that, as a Mormon, a wall of intolerance – much of it unspoken, some all too blatant – will engender suspicion among Republican primary voters, particularly those affiliated with the Christian Right.
It is important to note that none of those hurdles are insurmountable. Because Romney is considered to be ideologically and economically "safe" among the financially well-heeled contributors who serve as de facto leaders of the Republican Party, he has more than enough resources to compensate for the aforementioned deficiencies. That said, effectively dealing with them will require Romney to win the primaries by pandering to right-wingers in ways that may compromise his political viability in the general election. This could prove fatal to him if he makes the same mistake as John McCain and, in the name of uniting his party with a running mate from the hard right, winds up politically shooting himself in the foot with another Sarah Palin.
There are several reasons why Herman Cain could win the Republican nod:
1. His preliminary showings in the polls are not only surprisingly strong for someone with so little name recognition (between 8% and 10% and ranked either fourth or fifth among the candidates), but show great likelihood of growing as he becomes more widely known (the same poll that gave him 8% also indicated that only 33% of Republican voters had even heard of him, with a whopping 24% of those who knew of him giving him their support).
2. He has deftly pulled off the trick of having impeccable credentials as a bona fide conservative (which, as indicated by many of the 2010 Republican primary contests, is increasingly considered to be mandatory) without yet coming off as so extreme as to alienate independent and moderate voters. This is especially useful in a race in which the other major candidates are either viewed as ideologically suspect (e.g., Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich) or too strongly associated with right-wing radicalism to ever be elected (e.g., Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul).
3. He is extremely charismatic, as suggested by the fact that Republicans viewing a recent candidates debate in South Carolina declared Cain to be the winner. This gives him an edge over the other two solid conservatives who might otherwise supplant him for the nomination (i.e., Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty), as well as over the man who can otherwise be considered the frontrunner, Mitt Romney (more on that below).
4. His strong business background will strongly appeal to Republican base voters. As the brief Donald Trump boom and ongoing strength of Romney's candidacy both demonstrate, the conservative idealization of business success is so significant that many are quick to deem a solid corporate background as, in its own right, a qualification for higher office. For some this comes from a belief that people who have "made it" in business possess the leadership qualities necessary to perform well in any sphere; for some it comes from a notion that the business world is somehow purer and/or more efficient than the public sector; for some it's based on the belief that businessmen will best understand which policies are conducive to economic growth. Either way, this is clearly a variable that Cain will have working to his advantage.
5. His race will provide conservatives with a means of neutralizing one of the sharpest criticisms levied against them. The notion that many conservatives are motivated by racism certainly has a great deal of merit, as shown by everything from the rhetoric of Tea Party leaders and the signs at Tea Party rallies to the prevalence of racially-tinged conspiracy theories about Obama's religion and place of birth, polls that show a correlation between racism and right-wing ideas, and the very history of the modern Republican Party itself (particularly in its transformative years, 1964-1980). At the same time, those in the right-wing who are not driven by racial animus may feel especially compelled to firmly debunk such notions, while those who harbor such motivations will feel drawn to Herman Cain as an example of "one of the good ones." While that desire would not cause them to support any black candidate (it is doubtful, for example, that Colin Powell would fare well among them), it can certainly help put one with Cain's other compelling qualities over the top.
Cain's only significant drawback is his lack of political experience, mainly because it would raise questions about his capacity to serve as well as make him prone to the kinds of gaffes that more seasoned pols are trained to avoid. While the second variable could prove lethal to his ambitions, the first will be offset in the eyes of many Republicans and independents (a) by their belief that Barack Obama wasn't qualified, (b) by their ingrained suspicion of government, politicking, and "Washington insiders," and (c) by an overall dissatisfaction with Obama's performance and a desire to replace him. In short, it is not inconceivable that Hermain Cain could become the first non-political presidential candidate since Wendell Willkie in 1940.
Although a great deal of verbiage has been spent here explaining the potential behind Herman Cain's candidacy, that doesn't mean I think he is most likely to walk away with the Republican Party's top prize. As I've mentioned in previous op-eds, presidential nominations are ultimately determined by the outcomes of each party's initial primaries, which for Republicans in 2012 includes four states - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Polls strongly suggest that Mitt Romney will dominate the contests in New Hampshire (due to its proximity to Massachusetts, his strong grassroots operation and fundraising campaign there, and his overall popularity as a business whiz and moderate) and Nevada (again due both to his image as a moderate and his excellent business record, as well as that state's large Mormon population), which guarantees that he will at least be one of the finalists for the top prize. The only variables preventing him from having the nomination locked up are his relatively weak showings in Iowa and South Carolina. As such, one of two things will happen:
1. Conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina will find themselves unable to unite behind a single alternative. Since Herman Cain is the only candidate with the qualities necessary to unite the right-wing of his party, a failure on his part to do so would likely splinter conservatives amongst himself and Gingrich, Bachmann, Palin, Paul, Pawlenty, and possibly Perry. That, in turn, would cause Romney to win one or both of the other two states, and with them the nomination.
2. Conservatives will unite behind Herman Cain, thus bringing him victories in Iowa and South Carolina and putting him in a position to challenge Mitt Romney in the subsequent primary states. Of course, even then Cain's victory won't be assured; as his profile rises, more detailed attention will be paid not merely to his inexperience, but to the specifics of his political views, which will cause him to cut a more radical profile in the public eye that could improve Romney's perceived electability by contrast. Then again, should Cain weather those factors, he could also find that his conservative purism and ability to racially neutralize Obama will work to his advantage, while his strong business career will offset one of Romney's most important political assets.
In short, Mitt Romney is the favorite for the presidential nomination next year, most likely with a conservative running mate from a swing state and/or demographic bloc (Senator Marco Rubio of Florida comes to mind). If there is to be an upset, however, the underdog most likely to be responsible for it is Herman Cain.