As Herman Cain rises in the polls, Beltway Republicans are wondering whether he is running a “serious” campaign, complete with bustling staffers, field organizers, and national money raisers. His recent bus tour around Tennessee and northern Virginia, hawking his latest hardcover, has only increased chatter about his efforts in early primary states, which appear lackadaisical.
But behind Cain’s bookstore stops, his political team is building — just not in usual frontrunner fashion. Instead of betting the campaign on Iowa, or another winter primary, his small team of advisers is attempting to play nationally, using Cain’s ubiquity, on the airwaves and the Internet, to boost his candidacy.
With 75 days until the Iowa caucuses, sustaining a top-tier candidacy with media attention, debate fireworks, and online donations is risky. But Cain’s operation is confident in its strategy. They say their deep experience in grassroots advocacy, often outside of party lines, will sustain the campaign.
Cain’s senior staff, to be sure, is more than a band of amateur enthusiasts. Most are veterans of Americans for Prosperity, an influential group with close ties to tea-party leaders and high-profile donors, such as Charles and David Koch. AFP, in many respects, launched Cain as a national conservative figure in 2005, when it tapped him as a spokesman — and he has benefited from the association.
As he traveled the country, championing AFP’s free-market principles, Cain developed relationships with strategists who lacked reputations in Washington but had extensive experience elsewhere, especially in Midwestern conservative circles. Mark Block, Cain’s campaign manager, was one such operative (and has been the brains behind Cain’s White House hopes). Another is Linda Hansen, Block’s deputy.
To top GOP consultants, the Cain-Block alliance has been astonishing to watch, not only because it has worked, but because of the differences between them. Cain, a charismatic African-American businessman, had eyed a presidential run for years but had few political prospects as a relatively unknown talk-radio host from Georgia with a failed Senate primary run under his belt.
Block, then directing AFP’s Wisconsin chapter, saw things differently. He told Cain last year that if they took an alternative route to the nomination — stoking buzz instead of buying it — they had a shot. Cain, in his mid-60s, a long business career finished, agreed. Sources inside the campaign say both men remain true believers in that mission.
Indeed, there is a bond there, sources say, more than employer-employee. Block, once a rising star, was looking for a professional comeback of sorts, a few years after he was fined for campaign violations in Wisconsin. Cain, for his part, was seeking to join the national conversation, not merely disappear into political history as the Man Who Once Challenged Bill Clinton. (Cain, then chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, famously challenged Clinton during a health-care forum in 1994.)
But Cain’s crusade is about more than green rooms or final career laps. And his autumn rise, campaign insiders insist, has not been sudden, or a lucky side effect of Cain’s charisma. Sure, other candidates have risen and fallen, and the Georgian could easily do the same, but Cain confidants bet he can last, due to the way the campaign was built and continues to be run — with catchy policy proposals and guerrilla maneuvers.
All spring, for example, Block used AFP tactics to build Cain’s campaign, emphasizing name-identification and messaging first, and running field operations on a shoestring budget. By late May, days after Cain officially joined the race, the work paid off. Using social media, outreach to conservative media, and appearances at tea-party rallies, Cain began to gain. Gallup’s May survey of GOP voters showed him with the highest “positive intensity score” in the field.
Cain’s poll numbers have fluctuated since, but his campaign has doggedly stuck to its original strategy, shrugging off its thin staffing as it works to keep Cain visible. J. D. Gordon, the campaign’s spokesman, says that the campaign will not shift its main focus to Des Moines or Manchester. But do look for Cain to make more early-state stops, now that he’s attracting more nationwide support — and has wrapped up the book tour. “We already have field staff in twelve states,” Gordon says. “And we’re launching in more states soon. We’re looking to spend more time in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
In this sense, Team Cain may be running a national campaign from its Atlanta-area headquarters, but Gordon cautions naysayers not to mistake that for a hands-off, media-only run. Cain, he says, hasn’t been a sheltered, airbrushed candidate, and won’t be in the future. He will continue to balance press appearances with scores of small events, political and personal, across the country. “There is a natural synergy between the book tour and campaigning, even though they are separate events,” he says.
Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, says this may be unorthodox, but predicts Cain’s AFP-inspired campaign will continue to rise, even if GOP competitors are skeptical of its infrastructure and direction. “Cain comes out of the tea-party movement and knows how to organize, despite having a small campaign structure,” he says. “AFP, especially in Wisconsin, has been able to build big campaigns against the unions, for example. That ground-level experience is helping his campaign.” But even Russo, a friend of Cain’s on the grassroots circuit, says it may not be enough to beat better-financed contenders.
Perhaps Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses, could be ripe for Cain’s approach. But even there, Cain is not making an overt play. Since the August straw poll in Ames, Cain has not held a public event in the state. He’ll return to Iowa this weekend, but Iowa Republicans wonder why it’s taken so long for him to return, especially after Michele Bachmann, the straw-poll winner, began to drop. They scratch their heads about why the campaign has only one office in the Hawkeye State — located in Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines — and four staffers.
But in background conversations, Cain’s Iowa team tells me that much is happening behind the scenes to get ready for January. As Cain has gained in the national polls, his Iowa aides have been coordinating activists, urging them to coalesce under the campaign’s online umbrella, called “Herman Cain Express,” while encouraging them to continue their self-directed activities. There is a consensus in Cain World that much has been accomplished by Cain’s fervent supporters without the campaign’s interference, and to meddle with that, beyond offering a helping hand, would be detrimental. It comes back to the AFP model, one aide says, where a group or candidate leads, but does not fully direct, a groundswell. At least that’s their hands-off hope.
And they may pull it off. According to the latest polls, this model is working in Iowa, where daily retail events are usually a requirement for a strong caucus showing. In the latest RealClearPolitics poll average, Cain leads in Iowa by 3.3 points. “It’s a lean, mean fighting machine,” Gordon says. “It’s been a challenge to keep up with the publicity that comes with the surge, but we’re doing the best we can and we’re excited about where we’re going.”
Cain’s campaign in New Hampshire, the crucial first primary, is also tiny, and raises eyebrows with its sparse presence. In fact, only one person, Charlie Spano, is a paid staffer. This is troubling to a handful of top Cain supporters, who believe things are lagging. And numerous advisers have departed the campaign due to differences over the strategy. But in the Granite State, Cain’s sprawling network plows forward, relying on approximately 40 to 50 volunteers, who spread the word. RealClearPolitics’s poll average shows Cain trailing Mitt Romney in the state by double digits, but even with few resources, he places second.
Back in Washington, veteran Republican campaign hands acknowledge Cain’s popularity, but are far from ready to declare him the nominee. “It’s at best a 20 to 30 percent chance, but these are no ordinary times and he is no ordinary man,” says Mary Matalin, a top GOP strategist. “What we know about the nomination process is no one has ever won without Iowa or New Hampshire, neither of which is winnable without extensive organizations and retail, on-the-ground effort. He does not have an operation to do that, but there might be a path if he can keep the Big Mo.”
Florida state representative Scott Plakon, Cain’s leading Sunshine State booster, agrees. He points out that Cain may, to a certain extent, be following an AFP model from Wisconsin, but thinks that, in a broader sense, Cain is adapting to the new way in which people now communicate, in the tea-party movement and beyond. Cain, he says, with very few official staffers in Florida, was able to win the state’s straw poll, due to his ability to connect blocs of voters who are eager to spread the word on social-media platforms. If Cain can win like that in Florida, he says, he can do the same across the country, even in states with expensive television markets.
“It’s electric,” Plakon says. “And it remains organic. The national campaign is working on things,” such as launching a new political-action committee, “but this campaign is a lot like Marco Rubio’s last year — people see a great leader and connect; they don’t care about how the campaign is built.” Of course, even Rubio had statewide canvassing and fundraising teams.
“Cain can bypass the traditional channels,” Plakon says. “And he’s doing it at a lot lower cost, having folks go from neighbor to neighbor. In the age of social networking, that’s invaluable.” And to those who think Cain’s simply on a book tour, he says, think again. Romney, Rick Perry, and others are keeping mum about Cain’s tack. Presidential campaigns can be cruel to novices and Cain, most acknowledge, has much to do in a very short time.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.