Herman Cain and GOP presidential politics

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 5/31/2011, 4:13 p.m.

Herman Cain and GOP presidential politics

The name “Herman Cain” and the words “GOP presidential nominee” is a pitiable oxymoron. But the irrepressible talk show host and former Godfather Pizza CEO still thinks that he can stand the GOP on its head and get it to nominate him, an African American, as its 2012 presidential standard bearer.

Cain certainly has the right stuff to be considered a serious contender. He’s articulate, passionate and spouts the hardcore conservative line backing draconian immigration crackdowns, opposing abortion and gay marriage, backing a muscular military, repeal of the health care reform law, a wildly regressive national sales tax to replace income taxes and scaling government to the bare bone.

Cain has consistently scored at the top or near the top in straw polls by Tea Party activists and leaders as their choice to carry water for the party. And judging from the mostly white crowds that Cain has whipped into a frenzy when he lambasts Barack Obama and big government, Cain has effectively trumped race. Or has he?

It’s one thing to shout the right buzzwords to a crowd that’s in lock step with the candidate in beliefs, but it’s quite another thing to get those same voters to punch the ticket for an African American, no matter how conservative, in the primaries. Cain banks that they will do precisely that because many white Democrats pushed race aside and backed Obama in 2008. But what Cain forgets is that many didn’t. And it was based purely on race.

That was evident in Obama’s bruising primary battles with Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas when Clinton got a majority of white Democratic votes. A 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that in 2006 House races; Democrats were nearly 40 percent less likely to back a black Democratic candidate than a white Democrat.

Two years later, that changed somewhat in part due to Obama’s race neutral campaign, absolute voter disgust with the GOP corruption and scandals, Bush’s domestic and foreign policy fumbles and bumbles, a lackluster GOP presidential contender and a laughingstock GOP vice president contender and a tanked economy.

Cain is also buoyed by the congressional wins of black GOP candidates Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina in 2010. But West and Scott won in rock solid GOP districts, against weak, under-funded Democratic foes. Their wins were regional wins with absolutely no national implications, or for that matter any real influence in Congress. They are just two of hundreds of GOP congresspersons, and they are in no position to make, shape or dictate policy whether in Congress or the party.

The GOP presidential standard bearer is a different matter. He is more than just the party’s most important political standard bearer. He is the standard by which the party is judged and gauged by voters. And that doesn’t just mean his philosophy, positions, style and vision of governance. It means his visibility, and race does matter.