Although Rick Perry currently remains in the lead in the RCP average for the GOP nomination, Nate Silver* is far from the only person noting that the prime beneficiary of Perry’s current slump is Herman Cain, not Mitt Romney. It appears the political discussion will continue to move back to a Romney vs Not Romney theme, although Silver adds the appropriate caveats:

Mr. Romney has emerged — or re-emerged — as the favorite; I’d give him roughly even odds of winning the nomination. But it’s unlikely to be a smooth and linear path, and the alternate hypothesis that Republican voters are determined to pick someone more conservative than him has some support in this data.

That’s not to paper over the problems of Mr. Perry, who entered the race in a strong strategic position and has failed to make much of it. It’s possible, moreover, that the fallout of the Sept. 22 debate is not yet fully realized in the surveys; Mr. Perry performed somewhat worse in the Fox News and YouGov polls than in the CNN poll, which postdated it by a couple of days.

In general, however, I’d caution against using terms like “momentum” when discussing the nomination race (or polling results under most other circumstances). We’ll be publishing a separate article on this shortly, but there’s not much evidence of serial correlation in polling data: candidates who decline from one period to the next are just as likely to rebound as to see their numbers continue falling.

That finding does not surprise me. As I noted previously, if Romney re-emerges as front-runner, there will be a renewed focus by his rivals and the media on Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate. Moreover, if Cain competes seriously with Perry in the Not Romney category, Cain also will get more scrutiny.

Herman Cain certainly has assets as a candidate. For starters, he’s well-liked (including by me, fwiw), although Gallup has a caveat:

Herman Cain’s image among Republicans familiar with him is more intensely positive than any other Republican presidential candidate’s, but his 51% name recognition continues to rank near the bottom of the field. Among the better-known candidates, Rick Perry has the strongest positive image.

The WSJ’s Daniel Henninger recounts Cain’s success in the business world and long-standing opposition to a government takeover of the healthcare system — noting Cain’s record in both respects compares favorably with that of Mitt Romney. However, Henninger goes further, musing:

Does a résumé like Herman Cain’s add up to an American presidency? I used to think not. But after watching the American Idol system we’ve fallen into for discovering a president—with opinion polls, tongue slips and media caprice deciding front-runners and even presidents—I’m rewriting my presidential-selection software.

However, the question is whether Cain can convince the electorate to do the same. Henninger’s reasoning seems flawed, even by its own standards. Having noted the lack of serial correlation in public opinion polling, theorizing that polls drive candidate selection is like arguing that thermometers cause fevers. As for slips of the tongue, Henninger seems to have missed that Cain has made his share, notably in foreign policy. Cain first tried to punt on foreign policy in general; since then, he’s given bad answers or made gaffes on Israeli/Palestinian negotiations, Iran’s nuclear program, and Taiwan, for starters. Although the 2012 election is unlikely to turn on foreign policy, voters probably would like more reassurance on that front — and the establishment media would undoubtedly play up this weakness in a matchup with Obama. Cain has also apologized to Muslims for comments about their faith. Muslims are a small voting bloc and likely not influential in the GOP primary process, but here again the media would play this sort of material big (much as some elements of the media have been doing with Perry).

Cain also tends to make comments that do not really rise to the level of a gaffe, but raise questions about his strength as a candidate. For example, Cain’s comment that he could not support Perry as the nominee may suggest that he does not understand the Romney vs Not Romney dynamic. If you are Not Romney, you should be trying to consolidate that bloc by going after Romney, not attacking other Not Romneys, whose supporters you want to attract. Tim Pawlenty decided to spend his time attacking Michelle Bachmann instead of Romney; it did not end well for him. Similarly, while many on the right like to point to Cain’s popularity as a rebuttal to the left’s tired resort to the race card, Cain’s comment that “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view” (and others like this) may ultimately be counter-productive. First, some African-Americans may bristle at that sort of comment and harden their positions, undermining Cain’s appeal. Second, any minute spent in 2012 discussing race is a minute not spent our sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, exploding debt, rising health insurance costs and lost insurance coverage under Obamacare, and so on.

One major reason why parties tend to nominate people who have been governors or senators, as opposed to House members or people who have not held elective office, is that they have demonstrated at minimum a history of not imploding under the pressure of a large-scale campaign. Recent examples of pure businessmen running for president — Perot, Trump — underscore this point. Herman Cain has undeniable assets, but also undeniable liabilities. He may get his chance to unify the Not Romney bloc in the GOP caucuses and primaries; whether he can capitalize on that chance remains to be seen.

*Although Silver is keying off the Sept. 22 debate in Orlando, I’ll continue to be the contrarian here. Perry takes a much bigger hit in Florida polls from PPP and Survey USA, which is in line with what “Perry’s eggheads” would say about the importance of local coverage; Perry’s smaller fall outside Florida suggests that his problem is larger than the debates themselves.

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