Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Someone forgot to tell Herman Cain that he’s not running for president anymore.
The former GOP candidate was in New York City this week to promote his 9-9-9 plan (still) and the 9-9-9 Patriot Summit, a rally Cain will host in Washington, D.C., next week.
In two days in the big apple, Cain had four radio interviews, two appearances on Fox News, one on CNBC, and speaking engagements at Fordham and Columbia Universities.
“I thought I was going to be less busy,” Cain admitted in an interview. The former candidate says his schedule is more booked now than it was during his campaign.
It’s not unlike what happened to Sarah Palin: Being a candidate, even briefly, resulted in the kind of popularity and public interest that an enterprising soul could build a career on. Though he suspended his campaign back in December, there’s still a great deal of demand for Herman Cain – and he’s making sure to meet it.
Nashoba Santhanam, Executive Director for the Columbia University College Republicans club, which invited Mr. Cain to be their spring speaker, said that the former candidate was a draw even for students on a traditionally left-wing campus.
“We put 200 tickets up online, and they sold out in two hours,” Santhanam said. “I don’t think there’s a high proportion of Cain supporters, but there’s certainly a large amount of interest in the event.”
College campuses have seemed to be Cain’s bread and butter since the end of his campaign. It all began with a joint rally Cain held with Stephen Colbert in January at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. His appearance at Columbia on Tuesday night was the seventh stop at a college in 2012 alone, and he plans on giving speeches at schools for the rest of the year.
“I really enjoy the enthusiasm of the students,” said Cain, who thinks young people are especially attuned to his message. “They’re smarter, quite frankly. They get it.”
Whether they like his policies or not, young people certainly do seem to be enthusiastic about Herman Cain – or, at least, his sometimes-bizarre viral videos. The “rabbit ad” that Cain put out in March garnered over 300,000 views on YouTube, quickly making the rounds on Huffington Post, Gawker, and, of course, It’s a Free Country.
The infamous “smoking man” ad from last fall, featuring campaign manager Mark Block, has almost 2 million views on YouTube. Block was with Cain at Columbia on Tuesday night; outside the Low Rotunda, after the speech, a gleeful student had his picture taken as he smoked a cigarette with Mr. Block.
Young people, generally, like weird stuff that’s good for a laugh. There was no shortage of it rolling down the Cain Train’s tracks.
“I don’t take myself so seriously that it always has to be presented at a professorial level,” Cain said. “That bores people. But I have a sense of humor about life, myself, and even though this country has tons of issues and crises, I still can find a way to inject some humor into it. It’s not fabricated, it’s just who I am.”
Cain recognizes that his levity on the campaign trail cuts both ways: It’s endearing to people who are usually bored with politics, but it’s troubling and confusing to those who don’t think that the best way to convey an anti-stimulus message is to shoot a rabbit out of the air with a rifle.
(In case you were curious, Cain and his media producer came up with the idea for the rabbit ad on an airplane, over “adult beverages,” as Cain put it. “That’s when we do some of our best creative work,” he told me.)
[Update: Cain's latest ad features a man being pecked to death by a chicken - an allegory for the American taxpayer besieged by Big Government]
“What people in the political world don’t like is that I’m able to cut through the stodgy paradigm that politicians have and get a message across,” said Cain, who holds that he’s completely serious about making 9-9-9 the tax law of the land. “As long as I’m getting a serious message across, even though I’m using provocative, novel approaches, in the words of my grandfather, ‘I does not care what they think.’”
“This is what the Republican party has not been very good at,” Cain went on, “connecting with the people.”
No longer running for president, Cain still thinks he can be an asset to the Republican party in this year’s election. He says his personal mission, in addition to 9-9-9, is helping Republicans win back the House and the Senate, and defeat Barack Obama in November.
“Everything I do is to help try and close the enthusiasm gap,” Cain said.
The Republican Party could use it. As the brutal primary season creeps to a close, the last remaining candidate with significant, visible youth support is Ron Paul. Mitt Romney, who Cain concedes will be the likely nominee, has been battling a lame image all along the way.
And yet, Cain says that the party would be in even worse shape for the general election if not for his candidacy, which was replete with simple, straightforward talking points delivered in memorable, if off-kilter, style.
“I caused the other candidates to step up their game, quite frankly,” Cain said in his car on the way to yet another taping in the city on Wednesday afternoon. “They’re still trying to step up their game.”
Cain hopes that whoever the nominee is, they’ll take a page out of his book as they make their general election pitch.
“Young people like my message, they like my directness,” Cain said. “They like that I don’t speak in generic political speak. Being very honest about problems we face in this country: that’s what they really like.”
Asked whether Cain would have a chance to bring his message to the Republican convention in Tampa come August, the former candidate said that the party has hinted at an invitation, but he has no firm commitments at this time.
“I think if they do not ask me to speak at the convention in August," he said, "there will be riots in the street.”