Opinion: What the Cain Train Derailment Means for the GOP Field

Herman Cain Campaigns In South Florida.

In suspending his campaign Saturday, onetime presidential contender, short flash-in-the-pan, and former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain thundered, “I’m not going away!” Here's why that might not be such a good thing for the other GOP candidates.

First off, Cain's appeal as an outsider was undeniable; The Washington Post summarized Cain’s rise thusly

Cain attracted large crowds who were drawn to his straightforward style, folksy sayings (“Awwww shucky ducky now!”) and affability. More than once, he delighted crowds by breaking into song. Released in the midst of his presidential run, his latest book — “This Is Herman Cain!” — became a bestseller.

While his personal story is admirable, many wondered if a common guy with almost no knowledge about economics (his 9-9-9 plan was dismissed as dangerous and unworkable) or foreign policy (he could not remember Libya) was an acceptable choice for president of the most powerful country on Earth.

At a ridiculously suspenseful event in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, Cain paraded his smiling and waving wife behind him and addressed the expectant national news media and a crowd of supporters.

By suspending his campaign he has effectively dropped out of the race, but by not dropping out officially, he can continue to travel the country giving speeches and insert himself into the presidential contest. He can also continue to raise and spend money until declaring a formal end to the campaign, which is the recognized status in Federal Election Commission rules.

Who will benefit from Cain’s departure? Newt Gingrich has been most frequently mentioned. Here was Gingrich’s statement after the Cain flameout.

Herman Cain’s 999 plan got our country talking about the critical issue of how to reform our tax code and he elevated the dialogue of the Republican presidential primary in the process. I am proud to know Herman Cain and consider him a friend. I know from having worked with him for more than a decade he will continue to be a powerful voice in the conservative movement for years to come.

However, hold your horses because there is also interesting information from polls that suggest Mitt Romney could also benefit from Cain’s bowing out.
A Pew poll taken shortly before Thanksgiving showed that Cain supporters are split evenly between the Mitt Romney and Gingrich when they were asked for their second choice.

Of course everyone wants the Cain followers - Rep. Michele Bachmann's spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, said, “We have received numerous calls and e-mails from his supporters, and we are happy to have them.”

Iowa Cain campaign workers were in shock at his new headquarters in Des Moines where a truckload of huge Cain yard signs had just arrived. This all highlighted the unorganized and quirky nature of the rise of Cain from a novelty to frontrunner in the GOP field. His demise was no less unorthodox, teasing the media until the last minute with a huge stage, music, and the unveiling of his national headquarters in Atlanta only to bow out.

I was taken aback by how many folks dismissed the changes against Cain and his lack of experience in politics. Sexual harassment has already taken its toll in the GOP with women voters and to ignore that is, it seems to me, to be reinforcing the gender gap the GOP has been trying to overcome since 2008.

I was at an event on Saturday in a small town here in Iowa and people were for the most part annoyed at how Cain handled this retreat. “It was disrespectful to his followers and the media to play this game of 'guess what I’m about to do,'” said one. Another Iowa sage averred, “By not ending his campaign he will be a pain for the other candidates, hovering around and creating a huge distraction.”

Given Cain’s gaffes and the impact of his harassment and affair its not likely that other candidates will be very happy to have Cain endorse them, which he threatened to do. Clearly Newt Gingrich does not need voters to be reminded of nasty affairs and adultery. So it’s clear that the GOP field will welcome Cain supporters but the Hermanator himself, not so much.  

My own calculus is that with Cain’s departure the 2012 GOP race for the White House is tightening to a contest between Romney and Gingrich. Although Ron Paul supporters will hate me for saying this, since they feel that he’s got momentum as well. Inevitably, the field of eight contenders has to shrink.

The national poll of registered voters by Majority Opinion Research asked respondents, If the Republican presidential nomination process were a TV reality show, which candidate would you vote off the program first?" In that poll, Michelle Bachmann and Cain were voted off first.  Next were Huntsman, Gingrich, Paul and Perry, followed by Romney and Santorum. As the process begins in reality, we'll be following the dynamics closely.

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com.