What constitutes a “fringe” frontrunner?
That is what Ryan Lizza calls Herman Cain today, comparing him to Steve Forbes, Ron Paul, and Chauncey Gardiner:
They exist in every open Presidential primary in both parties. They often enliven debates and force their more electable, centrist colleagues to take uncomfortable stands on difficult issues, which is generally a good thing for our politics. In previous elections, these fringe candidates have never come close to becoming serious contenders. They run to push the ideological debate further to the right or left and to make a name for themselves in the process. If they are lucky, they end up with some notoriety, a new national fundraising base, and perhaps a show on cable TV. These types of fringe candidates don’t truly prepare for the absurdities and difficulties of a Presidential campaign because in their heart of hearts they never believed they would make it very far.
Herman Cain has made it, and the result is akin to a dog catching a car.
Pat Robertson was a televangelist who carried four states and came in second in several more (including Iowa). He was never the frontrunner, but that surely constitutes the showing of a “serious contender.” Herman Cain may outperform Robertson’s performance, or he might underperform – I don’t think there’s much use for making predictions at this point, though my hunch is that the Cain bubble is going to pop before the primaries. Pat Buchanan was a former presidential adviser and a crank right-wing newsletter publisher who had never held elected office. He also carried four states in 1996, and he came close to defeating a sitting president in New Hampshire (only the third time in the 20th century that a sitting Republican President faced a serious primary challenge). I see no reason to believe that Herman Cain’s chances are any higher than Robertson’s or Buchanan’s.
The Republican Party has changed since 1988 and 1996 (a change for the less responsible, in my view), but I don’t see any reason to coronate Cain just yet. If Lizza declares Cain the frontrunner for leading in national polls, does that mean that he would also call Donald Trump the frontrunner in April, when he was leading the GOP field in polls? Unless Lizza does not think that Donald Trump was a “fringe” candidate, I would conclude that Cain does not represent “the emergence of a truly new phenomenon in Presidential politics” just yet. Either Cain is considered more of a “fringe” candidate than Robertson, Buchanan, and Trump (and I see no reason why he should be) or there should be another metric by which to determine a “frontrunner” rather than a temporary lead in polls. If he goes on a winning streak once the primaries start, we can talk.