Herman Cain’s Surge: Race and Relatability in South Carolina

Herman Cain and Mitt Romney greet each other at the GOP debate.

Rick Perry is back today in South Carolina, the state where he launched his presidential campaign just over ten weeks ago. Perry immediately spiked in the polls, but after his series of debate fumbles, it’s been Herman Cain who’s captured the momentum.

Cain led two polls of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina last week, and Romney hasn’t led polls in the first-in-the-south primary since June, well before Perry entered the race.

But it’s more style than substance that they’re responding to. While Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 refrain helped introduce him to early primary voters, Republican voters in South Carolina praised his relatability — and anti-Romney-ness — more than any specific proposals.

A handwritten sign on the door notes the hours of operation at Herman Cain's campaign headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina.At the modest Cain campaign headquarters, it was clear that this message was connecting – beyond what the campaign staffers were prepared to handle. A handwritten sign hung on the door advertising its hours, and Cain supporters dropping by for Cain swag found out that there were out – pins, bumper stickers, yard signs – all out for the moment.

“I have told the campaign, whatever you’re sending me, send me five times that because the people in South Carolina are hungry for Mr. Cain’s message,” said William Head, the Cain campaign’s director in South Carolina. He spent last week staffing up with four additional campaign field organizers. He took down the empty-handed supporters’ names in a notebook and promised to personally deliver campaign materials when they arrived.

Cain is just the latest of the string of candidates looking to capitalize on the open slot to be the alternative to Romney.

“I think there's probably half a dozen candidates that most people can see being supportable,” said Ron Green, a Republican who teaches and directs the Business Administration department at The Citadel. Green’s got no favorites yet, but in a state that is home to a Tea Party-backed governor and self-styled Tea Party kingmaker Senator Jim DeMint, he’s looking to be pragmatic.

“There are some candidates that are so socially conservative that I'm just afraid that if they're the nominee, it's going to turn over so many of those that are going to be anti-Obama voters, the ones that have moved and way from them in the last year or two, because they don't necessarily have a problem with his social policies. It's the fiscal part,” he said.

But even while his relative strength against Obama is a factor, he still has a slickness problem in with Republican voters in South Carolina.

“I know everybody thinks Mitt Romney is electable,” said Kimberly Sanchez, a restaurant owner in Orangeburg, South Carolina, spitting out the word “electable” like an audible eyeroll. “But doggone it, I really like the way Herman Cain can stick it to you. and I'm standing up in front of the TV pumping my fist, saying that's exactly right, Mr. Cain, that's exactly right.”

The Mexican restaurant Sanchez owns with her husband has teetered along during the last few years, and business has gotten slower of late, not better. And even though she defines herself squarely as a Christian conservative, a deep sense of uncertainty has her focused solely on economic matters over perennial concerns like gay marriage or abortion.

"We're in a deep hole right now, as a country,” Sanchez said, “If we don't start facing the big issues that are going to implode this country, we'll never get around to the social part." 

What she likes about Cain, is that he’s offering up a clear plan. But when asked what she thought if the straightforward plan would raise tax bills for earners making less than than $200,000, as the Tax Policy Center concluded last week.

“I don't know the complete detailed specifics of it,” she acknowledged. But receiving what feels like an unpredictable stream of tax bills at the restaurant for local, state and federal taxes, she’s ready for something more clear-cut. “I know the tax code now is, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? I mean, it's just, it is insane how much the government is in our pockets. It is insane.”

But it’s the eventual trickle down of the details of the 9-9-9 plan that has South Carolina political blogger Will Folks counting down to the end of the Cain bubble. In a state with a  a median income of $42,500, he said the appeal of a Cain presidency will quickly burn out.

“He’s popular because he’s different from the other guys,” Folks said. “He’s actually putting ideas out there. The only problem is if it’s a bad idea, and it’s going to cost more people than it’s going to help, how much traction is it going to have in the long run.”

In South Carolina, the endorsement he’s watching is Sen. DeMint’s, which would signal to not only conservative activists and local politicians that it’s safe to back out strong and hard for someone other than Romney. This is the state, after all, that’s gone for the eventual Republican nominee since 1980.   

With two events in South Carolina on Tuesday, Rick Perry is making a play to be that guy in South Carolina. But in the meantime, Folks said, Cain is well-positioned for his moment in the vacuum.

“You know, you've got the Occupy protesters on one end, the Tea Party protesters on the other end. But in the middle you've got a bunch of pissed off people that don't have time to protest, and they're sitting at home saying geez, I'm getting raped by the government. When is someone going to stand up. I think that's why people have latched on to Herman Cain,” Folks said. “They're desperate for something, anything. Just give me an idea. And Cain's doing that.”

Cain is also stoking a conversation about race and Republicans. South Carolina is lining up to again be the first Republican primary contest where white people make up less than ninety percent of the population. While Cain’s rise had Brooklyn barbershop-goers comparing a Cain/Obama to Frazier and Ali, in South Carolina, the name any question about race elicits is Tim Scott, the black Republican elected to Congress  in 2010. Republicans voters point to Scott, and to a lesser extent South Asian-American Governor Nikki Haley, as proof that GOP voters have no problem voting for a non-white candidate.

Reannie Smalls, an African American Democrat from Charleston agreed that Tim Scott shows a black Republican can get white voters’ support in South Carolina, but that makes her trust Cain’s less, not more.

"To me he's like a trophy coming to sit up on a mantle,” she said. “He did it like that as a tactic. Here you are, all these Republicans, not to get racial, but they're all white. And he's black. And in most people's mindset, a black is a Democrat. And he just flipped the chart.”

Smalls voted for Obama in 2008, but after a year of unemployment, but she puts her chances at voting for him again at 50/50.

“I’m weighing both sides this time, because it’s not so much about Republicans or Democrat. It’s about helping the people,” Small said. “They started outsourcing jobs and stuff, not even recognizing it’s cheaper for those that are helping with their money campaign and all of this, but they’re hurting the people they’re actually going to represent.”

But the Republican Smalls likes the best — “that fat guy who endorsed Romney not too long ago” — isn’t running this year.

So in 2012 in South Carolina, that’s something that may transcend partisan politics: A longing for a clear, and a little combative, alternative to the status quo.