Herman Cain tops new poll. Can he stay there?

Herman Cain stands a decent chance of hanging around at the head of the GOP presidential pack for the foreseeable future, emerging as the alternative to Mitt Romney. Here's why.

Toni Sandys/AP
Republican presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain participate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday.

Herman Cain is surging to the head of the political pack. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has him leading all Republican presidential hopefuls with 27 percent of the prospective primary vote. An Ipsos/Reuter survey puts the ex-fast food CEO just behind Mitt Romney, at 19 percent of the vote to Mr. Romney’s 21 percent.

Wow – Mr. Cain has sure accelerated fast. Only a few weeks ago he was stuck down in Newt Gingrich territory as the choice of only a few single digits of Republicans. Is he going to stay in the top tier, or will he fall right back to the pack?

After all, it’s been an extraordinarily volatile political year. First Donald Trump, then Michele Bachmann, and then Rick Perry all shot up in the polls like moon rockets, then fell like rocket boosters jettisoned when their fuel ran out.

That might happen to Herman Cain, too. It’s an axiom of politics that support quickly gained can just as quickly be lost. His “9-9-9” tax plan is now coming under greater scrutiny, as will his background and other policies. The glare will be harsh, and he might not be ready for it.

But we’re really here to argue the alternative. There’s a decent chance that Cain will hang around at the head of the pack. It’s possible that he, not Rick Perry, will emerge as the conservative, tea party-backed alternative to the mainstream Romney.

Why? First of all, Cain has long had a breakout potential. You can see this in the trend line of Gallup’s Positive Intensity Score, which subtracts voters who strongly dislike a candidate from those who strongly support that candidate. Cain has done well in this measure since the beginning of the campaign. Back in August, when his total vote was still below 10 percent, he led all candidates with a Positive Intensity Score of around 26. This means he may have a basic appeal to GOP voters that surpasses that of the other so-called “flavors of the month.”

In addition, a relatively large number of GOP voters still say they don’t know enough about Cain to have an opinion about him. Fully 23 percent of respondents in the NBC/WSJ survey said they didn’t know his name, or didn’t know much about him. That’s a large pool from which Cain may still draw converts as he gets more publicity.

Second, Cain may stay up in the heights just because the bloc of voters who like him has nowhere else to go. To this point, the volatility in the campaign has largely been caused by conservative, tea party voters sloshing from one candidate to another in search of the best anti-Romney. Cain’s recent rise has come almost entirely at the expense of Texas's Governor Perry, for instance. Map Cain’s upward trend line against Perry’s downward same, and they form a symmetrical “X.”

Well, the field is now pretty much set. No additional conservative champions are getting into the arena. It’s possible Cain voters could reconsider and flow back to Perry, but that would most likely require some sort of precipitating event, like a great Perry debate performance (or a poor Cain one) that so far seems unlikely. None of the other second-tier candidates has shown much evidence of break-out potential.

Third – and this may be the obvious one – Cain could be close to what the more conservative segment of the GOP is looking for. In follow-up calls to participants in the just-released NBC/WSJ poll, NBC political analyst Chuck Todd heard again and again that Cain supporters liked him because he is not a professional politician, and because he seems more authentic to them than the other candidates.

“He is the unpolitician in the field,” said Mr. Todd in an MSNBC interview.

Cain does much better than Romney among tea party voters, those who call themselves “very conservative,” men, those over 55, and those who profess a high degree of interest in the presidential race, according to NBC results.

Romney does better among non-tea party voters, liberal/moderate Republicans, women, and those who aren’t following the campaign all that closely.

It’s certainly not great news for Romney that he’s ahead in the segment of GOP voters who have yet to fully tune in the presidential contest.

As for Cain’s future, persistence at the top of the polls may not equate with delegates at the GOP convention next summer. Short on money and aides, he has little organized presence in early primary and caucus states. Indeed, he sometimes seems to be running a book-tour-style effort, as opposed to a traditional hand-shake New-Hampshire-diner campaign.

Like Cain, Mike Huckabee was a conservative favorite who shot to the top of the polls in 2008 on a shoestring and a prayer. But Mr. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in part because he spent a large amount of time going door to door in the state. That’s the kind of effort Cain has yet to match.

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