Florida Straw Poll: With Cain Victory, a New Race Emerges

ANALYSIS

 @ibtimes
on September 24 2011 8:28 PM
Herman Cain at CNN Debate
Herman Cain will seek to keep his surge going in Las Vegas Tuesday night. Reuters

Herman Cain won the Florida presidential straw poll on Saturday in a stunning upset.

Cain, a businessman from Georgia who has never held an elected office, got 37 percent of the 2,657 votes cast by Republican delegates in the straw poll. That's 8 percentage points more than the two presumed front-runners -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (15 percent, second place) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (14 percent, third place) -- got combined.

The also-rans were former Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania, 11 percent; Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 10 percent; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 8 percent; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, 2 percent; and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, 1 percent.

Straw polls are not always reliable at predicting the eventual nominee -- Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll in August, for example, and her poll numbers have dropped precipitously since then. The Florida straw poll has accurately predicted the Republican presidential nominee several times before, though: Ronald Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995. 

Whether Cain ends up winning the nomination or not, the results in Florida do indicate a fundamental restructuring of the race for the Republican nomination, especially because Florida will play such an important role in the general election next November.

Before Saturday, Perry was on top of every major national poll, with Romney gaining some ground on him. Even this early in the game, many people saw them as the two real contenders. But viewers -- both Republicans and Democrats -- were underwhelmed by Perry's performance at the Fox News-sponsored debate in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday, and Romney has been struggling throughout his campaign to justify the more moderate policies he pursued as governor of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Santorum -- who is known for being a staunch social conservative -- skyrocketed from the low single digits in recent national polls to 11 percent in the straw poll, good for fourth place, after a debate performance on Thursday that was widely praised in spite of one controversial incident in which he did not react when some audience members booed an active-duty soldier who had come out as gay.

Santorum placed ahead of Paul, who had been seen as a dark horse slowly gaining on the front-runners, and he also flung Bachmann -- the former favorite of the Tea Party and social conservative constituencies, and the winner of the Iowa straw poll -- into the oblivion of last place.

But the main story was, of course, Cain. He has a chance to poach a lot of voters from both Perry and Romney. He is very socially conservative, which attracts many Tea Party supporters and other traditional values-type voters. He is fiscally conservative, too, which appeals to most Republicans these days.

He could also smash the biggest argument Romney had going for him: business experience. Romney has made his private-sector background a major part of his campaign, criticizing career politicians and saying that he alone has the boots-on-the-ground experience needed to jump-start the economy.

But Cain gives Romney a real run for his money there, given that he was the chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza and made the chain profitable within 14 months. He has also worked as a business analyst for Coca-Cola, as vice president of Pillsbury and as a regional manager for Burger King, where, over the course of three years, he brought the Philadelphia-area Burger Kings from least profitable to most profitable.

Cain has never held an elected office, but he did run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia in 2004.

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