Three Things the GOP Field Can Learn from Herman Cain and One They Should Forget

| November 29, 2011 | 5 Replies

Now that Herman Cain’s candidacy appears to be two inches away from mountainside impact, the other candidates should be conducting a quick inventory of his campaign in search of useful bits their can take and use in their own. Despite what you may think, Cain has done a number of things well, which helped him rise to the top spot in the Presidential polls and hold that spot when the conventional wisdom said he would quickly fall.

When the candidates do decide to loot the body, here are three choice pieces they should assimilate, Borg-like, into their own campaigns.

If you want to sell a pie, you need a good hook: Cain has taken a lot of heat over how often he mentions his 9-9-9 plan, but it’s beating the stuffing out of all the other candidates’ plans right now. Why? Because Cain, a corporate marketing expert, knows deep in his bones what most politicians still can’t figure out: if you want people to remember you, you have to give them something simple on which to hang that memory. There’s a corollary here, by the way, that probably should get its own point: If you don’t build the hooks for your campaign, your competition will, and they won’t be good.

Mitt Romney has a fine economic plan, but it’s spread out over 59 points and has no unifying theme he can put into one short sentence. Rick Perry has a strong three-pillar plan but his hook, “Cut, Balance, and Grow”, is not only boring but so close to “Cut, Cap, and Balance” that it makes him look lazy and unimaginative. Newt Gingrich knows how to write a good hook — remember “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less”? — but he hasn’t gotten around to writing a good one for his own plan.

Cain put a strong hook in front of a plan that turned out to be less than half as comprehensive than any of the other candidates’ plans and his is the one that still dominates the tax reform discussion.

Positive beats negative: I’ve written about this before, but it ought to be said again. One of the big reasons Herman Cain vaulted to the top of the polls is because his campaign has been relentlessly positive. He’s stressed his belief that America is truly exceptional and that we Americans can do anything we desire if we exert the will and effort. He was one of the first out of the box with an economic plan which end result was less government, more opportunity, and economic prosperity for everyone. He resisted throwing punches at the other GOP candidates while he hurled haymakers at President Obama. He’s used his life story — poor kid of hard-working parents goes to college, works with the navy, becomes CEO, becomes successful radio host, becomes Presidential candidate — as an illustration of what he believes every American can do, if we get the fell hand of big government off our throats.

Those messages resonated strongly with an electorate sick and tired (IMO) of constantly squabbling politicians and candidates who can’t, or won’t, quite explain why they love their country so. Thus far, only Newt Gingrich has adopted a more positive message and that only in the past couple of months. Mitt Romney is content to snipe from his seemingly-secure position (or, better yet, have his surrogates like Jennifer Rubin do it for him from their media perches). Rick Perry can’t help but blast Romney with both barrels at every opportunity even though he has plenty of evidence that it’s not helped him in the polls. Michele Bachmann has reduced herself to a screaming ball of shrill. Who is climbing in the polls? It’s sure not the ones who continue to go negative against their Republican counterparts.

Don’t expect me to sell your product if you won’t do it yourself: This third point is like unto the first, but different in a very important way. It’s not enough for a campaign to come up with a strong hook on which to hang an important policy proposal; it then has to go out and fight for that proposal at every opportunity. Again, let’s look at Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Plenty of pundits have made fun of him because he brings up his plan so often, but his continued defense of his plan has kept it in the headlines while the plans of other candidates have faded well into the background. Rick Perry released his three-part plan with a lot of fanfare, but can you recall a point in any debate or television interview since then in which he turned the discussion to it? I can’t, and I’ve been looking. Romney and Gingrich have done the same thing — released solid plans with real details based on conservative principles then practically forgot about them to either attack another candidate or hared off down some other path. Their plans are still on their websites. You can find them if you look for them but why should you if they won’t treat them as important themselves?

Say what you wish about 9-9-9, but Cain made it abundantly clear that he believed in it. More importantly, he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to sell you on it. That sort of effort creates value. You believe that 9-9-9 is a big deal because he treats it like a big deal. Do you believe that “Balance, Cut, Whatever” is important to Rick Perry? Is Mitt Romney’s “59 Bullet Points to A Brighter Tomorrow” (It’s actually called “Believe in America”. Did you know that?) important to him? How about Gingrich’s “Plan with No Real Name”?

If they won’t invest a good chunk of their time and effort into selling us on their plans, why should you or I spend our time and effort on selling them to our friends and family?

Those are the good parts of Cain’s campaign, the useful stuff that Perry or Gingrich, let’s say, could drop right into their strategies and use very well. There is one thing that Cain has done poorly (and, no, it’s not what you think) that the candidates need to avoid.

Don’t forget your friends: When the Cain Train was just pulling out of the station, he and his staff made sure to contact those who were his most stead fast supporters, especially those in new media. They hosted blogger conference calls, made the candidate available for short interviews (though he never did make it on The Delivery, the hangup was usually due to his schedule, not his desire), and built an eager grassroots support base. At some point, and I believe this happened right about the time he let go his superlative communications director Ellen Carmichael, all of that stopped. I’ve not heard from the campaign beyond the normal mailing list e-mails (which are impossible to stop, by the way). He has given big campaign scoops to traditional, and hostile, media outlets instead of citizen journalists like Stacy McCain who spent months giving him coverage that those MSM outlets wouldn’t. He’s not held a blogger conference call for months, though he did invite National Review to his most recent senior staffer call.

Let me be clear on this point. I don’t believe that the Cain campaign owes me, or any of the bloggers who carried his water and kept his campaign vital early on, anything at all. However, the shift from a campaign with strong grassroots support to one that looked to a lot of outside viewers like it was a glorified book tour, complete with high-profile appearances on television talk shows, was a Dave Chappelle-as-Rick-James sized slap to the face to his most ardent supporters. It cost him support he could desperately use right now. I don’t recommend the other candidates get so big that they forget the people who gave them the initial boost that put them into contention for the nomination in the first place.

CORRECTION: Of course it was Dave Chappelle. Of course!

UPDATE: Good, solid advice here from Sarah Rumpf, who should have been working with the Cain campaign in Florida six months ago.

UPDATE 2: Candidates, you do not want your supporters as angry with you as Ladd Ehlinger is with Herman Cain. That bad thing I mentioned? Don’t do it.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Political Pontifications

About the Author ()