Herman Cain is rising in the polls because he is more like Ronald Reagan than any other candidate. Increasingly, Republicans seem to see in Cain the nearest reincarnation or resurrection of Reagan. The more he looks like Reagan, the more Republicans like him.
When Cain speaks, people listen; just as they did with Reagan, who spoke with authenticity, integrity, and charisma, traits found in Cain. During recent GOP debates, Cain significantly exceeded expectations, even winning post-debate straw polls among Republican leaders in South Carolina and Florida. Reagan did much the same, jumping over a low bar of expectation during the 1980 Republican primaries.
Cain possesses the Reaganesque ability to “turn a phrase,” causing people to stop and think. Cain’s “9 - 9 - 9” economic plan, for example, has captured the attention of friend and foe alike. It is the economic piece de resistance plan on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney’s proposal may be more intellectually crafted, but the street-smart Cain captures the public’s attention with “9- 9 - 9.”
Americans have always liked Horatio Alger rags to riches stories as embodied by Abraham Lincoln’s rise from a log cabin to the White House.
Cain, like Reagan, offers such a story. He does not just talk the lingo of conservative economics, which Republicans dearly love, but he has lived it, working his way up by the proverbial boot-straps from an impoverished childhood to significant leadership positions in corporate America.
Reagan, of course, came from a poor family in rural, downstate Illinois, graduating from the little-known Eureka College, and then rising to Hollywood stardom and the California governorship.
Which candidate for the Republican nomination causes people to think, “I would like to go into battle with him as our leader?” Clearly Herman Cain stands out, as Ronald Reagan did when Republicans chose him over the weaker-appearing George H. W. Bush, and then when the nation elected him over the lack-luster Jimmy Carter.
Cain speaks with bold clarity as someone who knows where he is going and how to get there. Romney knows the issues, but he does not stir the heart. Moreover, Romney’s flip-flopping on issues contrasts sharply with the self-assured certainty of Herman Cain.
As an African-American, Herman Cain’s background differs dramatically with that of the Ivy-League-educated Barack Obama. He offers Republicans a remedy to Barack Obama’s appeal to African-Americans.
As the Republican nominee, Cain could lay to rest the charge of bigotry and racism so often levied against them. And, because Cain has personally faced hard times, rank-and-file African-Americans as well as others may easily identify with him, instead of his principal competitor, Mitt Romney, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Of special note, Barack Obama cannot win reelection in 2012 without an overwhelming turnout of African-Americans, who voted well above 90 percent for him. They are the bedrock of the Democratic coalition, to which Herman Cain could present a direct challenge. Likewise, in 1980 Ronald Reagan captured a significant share of two other parts of the then bedrock of the Democratic Party, Southern White Protestants and Conservative Northern Catholics.
During critical times – economic, political, religious, and social – when people are crying out for help, Herman Cain would offer a strong voice and a compelling persona of new and bold leadership. That’s what Reagan did as he offered a clear contrast to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” in America with “It’s Morning in America.” Herman Cain speaks in the same manner, offering hope in the midst of doubt and despair.
Charles Dunn is editor of "The Presidency in the 21st Century" (UPK, 2011) and serves as The Distinguished Professor of Government at Regent University and Chair Emeritus of the United States J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.