Herman Cain becomes the third Republican candidate for president to officially end his campaign (Thaddeus McCotter and Tim Pawlenty being the other two). For those in Cain’s camp who would point out he only suspended his campaign I would point to the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. Recall that in September of that year, when the market crashed, John McCain suspended his campaign and called for Congress to act quickly to save the economy. However, just a day later McCain’s camp realized how foolish an idea this was and restarted their campaign. Suspending your campaign means you and your staff can do nothing so for a Cain campaign that has always lacked infrastructure (and was third in the polls) this is something they could never afford to do.
So Herman Cain is out. And the question must be asked who it helps the most? For that we need to look at the kind of Republican primary voters that have stuck with him. Cain once led every major primary survey but due to allegations of sexual harassment by six former employees while he was head of the NRA, his lack of foreign policy credentials, gaffes on just about every major issue, and lack of campaign structure but soon fell to third. His lead was based on large margins among conservatives. But it was among specific groups of conservatives. He led among social conservatives, split fiscal conservatives with Romney (at the time), led among business owners and gave Romney a run for his money among establishment conservatives. Some of Cain’s supporter stuck with him until the end so the question must be asked. Where will they go?
Most likely some will go to Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House has surged to a significant lead as the latest “Not-Romney” candidate just as Cain has fallen off. Gingrich has been helped by a primary season marked by over a dozen debates and in each one Gingrich has shined. But in retail politicking and actually connecting with voters Gingrich, like Romney, struggles. Cain had no such problem. In fact, none of the former “Non-Romney” candidates struggled with this facet of the primary. But this brings up the interesting possibility that some of Cain’s supporters may not go to the former Speaker. Right now Gingrich is not winning solid support among social conservatives and his support among fiscal conservatives is tepid. Establishment Republicans, wary of Gingrich’s blunders in the late 90s, are now lining up behind Romney. Gingrich also has a lot of baggage in various ways from his careers and marriages so again these voters may not go straight to him. Right now, it is a safe bet to say Gingrich might get some support from a few of these voters.
Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry had the ability to be uniquely appealing to former Cain supporters. Perry is stalwart social conservative and has made it a tenant of his campaign. Bachmann never fails to mention, when given the chance, how she has never voted for a tax increase and is fighting for all conservative values. Perry and Bachmann are also both very good at retail politics. Cain was very likeable and that is a large reason voters overlooked, at first, his obvious lack of experience on some issues. So Perry and Bachmann have something else to court these voters with. Perry also has something Bachmann cannot match and that is his executive record. This record has to appeal to the business owning voters that backed Cain but are now shopping for a new candidate. Since both candidates campaigns are flagging (and polling in single digits) getting a new infusion of support could restart their campaigns.
Of the other credible GOP candidates Paul, Hunstman, Santorum and Johnson it appears Santorum is the only one with a real shot at courting these new undecided voters. Like Bachmann and Perry he is an outspoken social conservative. He touts his electoral record (up to 2006) and has had the luxury of never really being attacked by any of his rivals. It is conceivable that some former Cain supporters could turn to Santorum if they remain displeased with the rest of the field. Huntsman is likely to moderate for Cain supporters on abortion and fiscal issues (though his platform is not half-bad), Johnson has not gained any traction among any GOP voters (threatening to run 3rd party in the general does not help) and Paul’s support has stayed steady but not grown throughout the cycle.
On a deeper level Cain’s exit reflects the fluidity of the GOP field just less than a month out from the Iowa Caucuses. Candidates have risen and fallen, some have dropped out and yet others have stayed in with little support. Romney has never been able to capture the “hearts and minds” of conservatives and Republicans. Likewise have Bachmann, Perry and now Cain been able to hold those “hearts and minds.” Cain’s exit opens the door for another candidate in the race to rise up to challenge Romney and Gingrich.
Caveat: Reuters/Ipsos polling data finds that Gingrich and Romney would benefit the most if Cain quit. We will see.