Herman Cain ran against Barack Obama almost as much as he ran as Barack Obama. And it was no mere coincidence.
That much was confirmed by Cain campaign manager Mark Block. There was a method to the madness, he insisted, and it came in the form of an unlikely talisman for a Republican presidential candidate to covet: David Plouffe’s book “The Audacity to Win” which told the story of how a freshman Democrat Senator with a “funny name” made it all the way to the White House.
But the similarities between the two men went back even further than the first days chronicled in Plouffe’s book. In 2000, Obama waged a primary campaign against incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush and lost. Four years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate at the same time that Cain, running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, also failed to get past his Party’s primary.
Those early electoral set-backs did little to curtail their political ambitions. Just three years later Obama announced his presidential candidacy on a frigid February morning in Springfield, Illinois, in front of 15,000 cheering supporters. For Cain, his national campaign journey officially launched on a nicer day in May in his home state of Georgia, also in front of 15,000.
But the parallels between the candidates don’t end there.
Focus on Delegates
Cain’s effort, like the campaign of the president he had hoped to unseat, was predicated on the emotional appeal of his rhetoric rather than the strength of his ideas. His once burgeoning nationwide network of grassroots supporters was built, like Obama’s before him, with the help of easily digested sound bites, telegenic charisma and the ability to attract adoring crowds in nearly any location, even when the destinations seemed a little less than orthodox in a campaign culture so heavily invested in early primary states.
Block guided a campaign counter to conventional wisdom in many ways, but directly in tune with Obama’s 2008 operation. As he told NBC’s Chuck Todd, the blueprint for their “long-term” strategy of focusing on the “delegate count” rather than what the conventional wisdom told the campaign they should do was found in Plouffe’s book. Therefore, Block said, they weren’t “betting the ranch” on the early states but instead ran a “wholesale campaign” that covered every state in the Union.
Cain’s penchant for a quick turn-of-phrase or catchy slogan was itself reminiscent of Obama’s reliance on promises of ‘hope and change’ and chants of ‘yes we can’ in 2008.
Take Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, for instance. The candidate himself touted the strength of the policy not on its merits but on its simplicity of message. But simplicity of message doesn’t necessarily correlate with sound policy, as Cain himself learned the hard way on the debate stage and in interviews.
The Big Speech
Heavy on slogans and light on substance proved to be the path to victory for Obama and that was exactly what Cain tried to emulate – just as their go-to event format: the big speech.
Obama, we know, excels on stage, whether behind a podium or pacing with a wireless mic in hand. His ability to draw the attention of a crowd and engage them in a call-and-response rallying cry is second to none.
That was until Herman Cain came along.
Possessing an equally impressive rhetorical acumen, his speeches were also built around slogans and a cadence eerily similar to the President. Addressing crowds, T.A Frank of New York Times Magazine wrote, Cain preferred “to voice short declarative sentences and have people call out ‘Yeah!’ or ‘That’s right!’ after each of them.” Crowds loved it, they ate it up and left not necessarily convinced Cain could do the job of president, but at the very least convinced they liked the guy.
Taciturn these men are not. Both love the spotlight, revel in the adulation of adoring crowds and gawking onlookers. Giving speeches means the ability to ignore prodding questions from the press when their ideas might not pass muster. The strategy both campaigns employed is to hope their charisma and charm could serve as a crutch to navigate any potentially rocky situation.
Again, a point where the Obama and Cain campaigns were very similar.
The popular guy in the room that everyone gravitates towards is a trait shared by both men.
Obama’s personal popularity rating has been rated at a staggeringly high 74 percent according to multiple polls, including most recently a Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll. Cain, according to a Gallup survey shortly before his campaign’s implosion, had the highest intensity level measured of any GOP candidate in the field. His overall favorable rating was the second highest among the contenders, but it was his strongly favorable number that gave him the intensity level edge by eleven points over the man that replaced him atop the polls – Newt Gingrich – and fifteen points over consistent front-runner Mitt Romney.
It was that likable personality that allowed Cain to sail across the constant speed bumps in his campaign from staff departures to policy gaffes until charges of sexual harassment finally did him in.
The Written Word
Finally, there are books. Already adept at public speaking both took their respective shots at the written word and based on book sales it seems they are at least adequate at prose. Books written by Cain and Obama became New York Times’ best sellers and helped shape the narrative of their grassroots force.
Obama used his fall 2006 book tour to gauge support for the candidacy he announced from Springfield less than four months later. Cain, some predicted, used his campaign to help prop up sales of his book “This is Herman Cain!” In either event, book tours put the candidate in front of voters and helped spread buzz.
So when the official post-mortems of the Herman Cain campaign are written, it should be noted that in trying to make Obama a one-term president, Herman Cain kept true to the unorthodox nature of his candidacy by running a carbon copy race the whole way.