Citizen Cain: facing another hurdle of history

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Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC.

This week's allegations that Herman Cain harassed two women during his tenure at the National Restaurant Association are far from the only obstacle he faces in his quest for the Republican nomination. In presidential elections, Americans rarely elect someone who has never held public office.

Over the weekend, Politico reported that in the 1990s, while Cain was head of the National Restaurant Association, at least two female employees complained to co-workers and higher-ups about what they said was his inappropriate behavior. (One of the women confirmed the accuracy of the Politico account to NPR.) Cain denies the accusations.

As Cain is a politician who has never been elected to, or held, a high political office, his learning curve must be near vertical. A more time-tested candidate might have faced these allegations earlier and perhaps been more adept at dealing with the situation.

Regardless of what happens next, the Republican presidential candidate is in the spotlight and the country is getting a sharper-focused idea of who Cain really is and how he handles obstacles in his way.

"This sort of scandal would end the career of many a politician," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. "But the usual rules don't apply to Herman Cain. He survives gaffes and scandal the way he beat colon cancer — and whatever doesn't kill him makes him stronger."

So far, Cain has overcome a cavalcade of skeptics and naysayers.

Back in March, the White House Bulletin observed that Cain, a never-before-elected politician, is "hardly on anyone's 'A' list." In May a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Cain "is not a legitimate candidate for president." In July the news editor at Salon lumped Cain in with "other flashes in the pan" and said Cain had been "completely eclipsed" by Michele Bachmann.

But in September Cain told a crowd: "Just because somebody has never held high public office, some people are spreading the nasty rumor that Herman Cain can't win. Well, let me tell you what, that may be what they think, but the American people have a different idea."

He was, as it turns out, delivering a victory speech to members of the Republican Party of Florida where he had just defeated ostensible front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in a straw poll.

Since then Cain's campaign has gained steam and staffers and lots of money. The Journal-Constitution reports that the cash is rolling in at a rate of $1 million a week. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Cain is the favorite among likely Republican voters, leading Romney 25 percent to 21 percent. And on Saturday Cain came out on top of all the Republican candidates in a Des Moines Register poll of voters likely to participate in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

During the early stages of the 2012 presidential campaign, Cain has been disrespected, discounted, hooted at, laughed about, ribbed, ridiculed and written off. But he is still standing.

And yet, there is one major hurdle of history that Cain may not be able to overcome in his run for the White House: In presidential elections, Americans rarely elect someone who has never held public office.

Facing the odds

In 235 years of American politics, only a few presidential nominees of major political parties have been never-before-elected politicians. Most of those have been leaders in the military. (Please see box.)

Though William Howard Taft was appointed to various vaunted offices — such as solicitor general and secretary of war — his successful campaign for president in 1908 was his first popular election. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover also ran for president as the Republican nominee in 1928 — without previous campaign experience — and won.

Cain has juggled many jobs in his career, including restaurant-chain executive, chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and radio talk show host. But he has never held public office — though he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and for the U.S. Senate in 2004 — and has never been a military leader.

On many fronts, Cain's top-of-the-pack status is bucking traditions. As Nate Silver points out in The New York Times: Cain has no endorsements from key Republican officials and he hasn't hired well-known advisers.

Given that there is so much anti-Washington sentiment in the air, there is no telling how the election will unfold. But even without this week's revelations, the odds are against Cain.

Herman And Wendell

Kyle Kondik, an analyst for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, has studied the successes and failures of "non-politician politicians" in America's past. He says that the candidate of yesteryear who most resembles Cain is superlawyer Wendell Willkie, nominated by the Republican Party in 1940.

The nomination of Willkie, Kondik says, "came in a much different era from now, when the votes of primary voters hardly mattered at all: There were 3.2 million of them in 1940s Republican primaries, and only 21,000 cast their votes for Willkie. Willkie won the nomination in 1940 thanks in large part to the desires of internationalist eastern Republicans, such as publishing titans Ogden Reid of the New York Herald Tribune and Henry Luce of Time magazine."

When all the ballots were counted, Willkie had lost. He received 44.8 percent of the popular vote and 82 electoral votes. He carried 10 states.

James H. Madison, a Willkie biographer and history professor at Indiana University, also sees some parallels between Cain and Willkie.

Like Willkie, Cain is a wealthy businessman who believes that the federal government has grown too big and powerful, Madison says. "Willkie's leadership in public utilities gave him more opportunity to develop his skills, connections, and thoughts than perhaps Cain has had."

Willkie "was far more of a dark horse," Madison says. "A Democrat until 1939, he had never run for office before 1940. Cain has campaigned earlier and is better known in some party circles than Willkie was at this point."

At this juncture, in the fall of 1939, Willkie was not even a candidate, Madison says, and "not on the national radar. "

By early 1940, however, Willkie did have strong and wealthy supporters providing money and advice — as does Cain, Madison says.

Both Cain and Willkie benefited from lukewarm public enthusiasm for their fellow Republican candidates, Madison says. In 1939, the leading Republican contenders were Sen. Robert A. Taft, attorney Thomas E. Dewey and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg. "All seemed by policy and personality unappealing to many voters," Madison says. "This 'none of the above' situation makes a dark horse possible."

In fact, Madison says, we may not have even seen the true Willkie-type candidate yet. "There is lots of time for change before the Republican nomination." The party's national convention will be in Tampa, Fla., in August.

And, Madison adds, "Willkie was not a professional politician and sometimes made statements that were not popular, the kind of 'missteps' that professional politicians abhor."

In the end, though, analyst Kondik is not sure whether Cain has what it takes.

Herman Cain, Kondik says, "seems to be a 'placeholder' candidate."

Cain may still be standing because most Republicans don't like the field of candidates all that much, Kondik says. "So they're sticking with the sunny, outgoing Cain. But I ultimately don't see him being all that viable. We'll see. If he won the nomination it would be truly historic."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio

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