Many keen political observers have not taken the ascendancy of Herman Cain seriously, because they know winning the Republican presidential nomination isn’t about national polls, it’s about Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the other primaries and caucuses.
That all changes with a new poll commissioned by The Des Moines Register showing Cain ahead of Mitt Romney by one point to lead all rivals. With a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points, the survey of likely caucus-goers makes it a tightly contested race between Cain and Romney, with their closest competitor, Ron Paul, a distant 10 points behind.
Add together first and second choices, and you get 42 Cain, 33 Romney and 21 Paul. Cain is reported to be the best-liked of the candidates, but most said they had not made up their minds.
Caucuses are much more involved and potentially awkward than primaries. Rather than heading into a curtained-off booth to cast a secret ballot on their way to work, caucus-goers gather in meeting spaces and advocate for and divide themselves by candidate based on rules that differ by party. The process discourages voting and, as Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008, allows a well organized campaign or one with a particularly passionate following (paging Ron Paul fans) to have an outsize impact.
This doesn’t mean that Cain is set to win the Iowa caucuses or the Republican nomination. It does mean that his campaign is more than a joke or a media creation and, bizarre commercials aside, it needs to be taken seriously.
Update: Just when things were looking up for Mr. Cain, the candidate was forced to deny sexual harassment allegations Sunday. Welcome to the big leagues, Herman.
—Peter Z. Scheer
Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA)
Republican front-runner Herman Cain in Des Moines, Iowa.