Why Herman Cain's poll numbers might rise even higher

Riding a wave of good feeling among GOP voters, Herman Cain is now virtually tied with ex-Gov. Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican rankings, according to recent polls.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain gestures during a speech at the Values Voter Summit on Friday in Washington. Mr. Cain is riding a wave of positive poll numbers into Tuesday's GOP debate.

Wow! Herman Cain is rising fast in the polls, about as fast as any GOP presidential hopeful has this year. And that is saying something, considering that in 2011 Republican voter support has been gyrating up and down like the wild ride of the Dow Jones Average.

One moment, Cain’s hanging out with Newt Gingrich in the low single digits. Then, whammo! It’s goodbye, Michele Bachmann. See you later, Ron Paul. Pardon my dust, Rick Perry. Hi, Mitt Romney. Nice to see you. The view sure is great from up here in the top tier.

It’s true. Riding a wave of good feeling among GOP voters generated by strong debate performances, Mr. Cain is now pretty much tied with ex-Gov. Romney at the top of the Republican rankings, according to recent polls.

On Monday, for instance, Gallup released survey figures showing Romney at 20 percent, and Cain at 18 percent. The poll’s margin of error is plus-or-minus four points, so that means the duo’s support is essentially equal.

What’s more, only a month ago the same Gallup poll put Cain at only 5 percent. In this survey his support has tripled within weeks.

Does this mean he’s got a real shot at winning? Well, that’s something we won’t know for months yet. In politics, support that comes quickly tends to be soft, and can evaporate just as quickly. Time will tell whether Cain is the flavor of the month or a longer-lasting classic.

But we will say this: don’t be surprised if Cain’s polls tick up yet more. If you dig into the numbers there are indications he still has room to grow. That’s because he still has low name recognition, compared to the other front-running GOP candidates.

Another Gallup poll, released October 4, indicates that only 55 percent of Republican voters say they are familiar with Cain. In contrast, the same poll shows that Romney, Perry, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann all have around 80 percent name recognition.

In the days since then Cain’s name recognition has probably risen – but it’s unlikely that it has risen to the 80 percent range. That means there’s a big chunk of the GOP electorate that just hasn’t found out about Cain yet. If they do hear about him, and they approve of him at the same rate as the 55 percent that knows him, he’ll win a big new chunk of support.

Cain’s an ex-businessman, so we’ll put this in business terms: Romney’s saturated the potential voter market, but Cain hasn’t. If they are both pizza chains, Cain is selling the same number of pies as Romney, but he still has territory in which to expand.

It's unclear how New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement of Romney, announced Tuesday, will affect the Hermanator's trajectory.

As to Cain’s staying power, it’s interesting that he’s emerging as the tea party candidate of choice. You can see that Cain’s rise has almost exactly mirrored the decline in support of Rick Perry, another tea party favorite.

According to a recent Pew survey, 23 percent of GOP voters who say they are particularly supportive of the tea party also say they support Cain as the nominee. In contrast, only 6 percent of Republicans who do not identify with the Tea Party say they’ll back the Hermanator.

Romney, of course, is the opposite – he gets the support of 25 percent of non-tea party Republicans, and 17 percent of Tea Partiers.

What does this mean? It means that it’s possible the race will end up as Cain versus Romney, as the tea party insurgents face off against establishment Republicans to see which will control the 2012 future of the GOP.

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