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Opinion

Why Herman Cain could be the GOP's perfect Obama rival

Herman Cain defies the stereotype of blacks as liberal. And his embrace of conservatism and rugged individualism might make him the Republicans' best salesman – and counter to Obama.

By Charlton McIlwain / July 5, 2011



New York

Black candidates must be especially image savvy to navigate the delicate contours of today’s racial politics. They must cultivate racial appeal, without provoking racial resentment, and expend their racial capital, without succumbing to the litany of stereotypes whites associate with them. We thought Barack Obama mastered this art, believing future black candidates must learn at his feet. But Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain might prove more teacher than apprentice.

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My co-author, Stephen Caliendo, and I analyzed over a thousand ads researching our recent book about racial appeals in US elections. We always returned to Mr. Cain’s 2004 Senate ads. Two aspects of those ads demonstrate why Cain might be the Republican’s best salesman and contrast to his fellow black rival.

First, there’s only ever one person in a Herman Cain ad: Herman Cain.

The rugged individualist

Nothing says rugged individualism louder than a lone black man standing next to a bedrock image of his own name, exclaiming “I’m Herman Cain.” Plenty of black candidates have pitched “I’m special because I’m black and accomplished” to voters. Candidates as varied as Alan Wheat, J.C. Watts, Gary Franks, Carol Moseley Braun, and Barack Obama have held themselves out as portraits of black exceptionalism. But none has convincingly sold the up-from-my-bootstraps image more effectively than Cain.

Rival candidates touted distinctiveness on the one hand, but reveled in all the help they had on the other. They spoke of help from family, advisers, and benevolent, colorblind white voters.

“Who could’ve dreamed that a poor black kid from Eufaula Oklahoma would grow up to be called Congressman?” Mr. Watts asked in several of his 1996 ads, for example, before adding, “but after all, this is America.”

Missouri gave me a chance to reach for my dreams,” Mr. Wheat relishes in one of his Senate ads. Obama’s ads were chock full of people who helped him – law professors, legislative mentors, a multiracial band of brothers and sisters.

You don’t see these images and sentiments in Cain’s ads. Like the Marlboro man braving the wide-open plains, Cain presents himself as a solitary man, resting alone on his credentials, indebted to no one. He rarely invokes “us” and “we,” but speaks always of “I” and “me.”

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