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.

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.

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.”

This is the image of pure individualism that conservatives like to see in all their candidates, and it is a prerequisite for its black ones.

Full-throated embrace of conservatism

But Cain couldn’t successfully sell his rugged individualism without a second distinction in his ads – his full-throated embrace of conservatism. “Conservative?” Cain repeatedly asks. “You bet.” He always answers, casually, as if to say, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Such acceptance is advantageous for black candidates seeking Republican support; it’s as expedient as “liberal” is damaging to black Democrats.

Liberals are one thing; black liberals – a completely different beast. Candidates opposing blacks usually supplement the liberal label. Black candidates are “too liberal,” “dangerously liberal,” “extremely liberal,” or, my favorite – “dangerously liberal with the truth” (as Jesse Helms once described Harvey Gantt).

But Cain counters the black liberal stigma in one fell swoop. He stamped “conservative” across his political ads, making the label his badge of honor. You see, in today’s racial parlance, conservative is not only antithetical to being liberal; it is antithetical to being black, which is what you must be if you’re a black man looking for Republican votes.

Cain further showcases his conservative persona. In one such ad he recalls one of his greatest life lessons. “My daddy always said, ’dem that’s comin’, get on the wagon, dems that ain't, get out the way.” Cain’s quaint recollection taps into conservative nostalgia. They remind viewers that the good ‘ol days were not only simpler. They were days when folks like Cain’s daddy still spoke the broken English of their slave forebears, and tended the mules pulling those wagons.

With a few exceptions, Republicans have rejected black candidates. But in an ironic twist of fate, polls and anecdotal evidence show that Republicans’ best hope in 2012 just might be another black man. And among a group of conservatives for whom not just any black will do, Herman Cain not only fits the conservative bill; if he sticks to his 2004 strategy, he will show that he can effectively sell his counter-stereotypically conservative image to both Republican primary voters, as well as conservative-minded independents.

Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, is the author of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in US Elections.”

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