Herman Cain is ahead of Mitt Romney in several recent polls. But can he sustain that lead, or is he just another candidate du jour?
Political experts say a Cain nomination is unlikely for two reasons: one, because his campaign infrastructure is not strong enough, and two, because his support is low in the states that will hold the first primaries and caucuses in 2012.
Republican Voters Have Played Flavor-of-the-Month
The past few months have seen a remarkable number of short-lived frontrunners. Cain has taken over the spot formerly occupied by Rick Perry and, before him, Michele Bachmann. One might call it the not Romney spot.
But neither Perry nor Bachmann could maintain their support, and when they faded, Romney took the top spot again by default -- until the next not-Romney candidate came around.
David Paleologos, the director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston, told the International Business Times that there was a good chance that slow and steady -- that is, Romney -- would win in the end.
In all likelihood, Romney is going to be the turtle of the race, and you're going to have all these rabbits running ahead and falling behind, Paleologos said.
Cain has surged to the top of the polls largely on the strength of his debate performances, which distinguishes him from Bachmann and Perry, who peaked in the polls before the debates and lost support once people learned more about them. But even so, Cain is riding largely on the publicity that comes from being a new frontrunner, and his campaign does not have the long-term infrastructure to keep him atop the polls once that publicity fades.
Cain Would Crash in General Election: Political Science Professor
Even if he managed to ride that publicity to the Republican nomination, he would crash in the general election, Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College, told IBTimes, because he lacks not only a well-organized campaign but also support among high-level Republicans.
Romney, on the other hand, has significant support amongst key influential Republican Party activists and fundraisers, Chandler said.
These deficiencies in Cain's campaign are especially pronounced in early primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which can set the tone for the whole voting season and give candidates an irreplaceable opportunity to fundraise and mobilize voters.
Cain did very poorly in the Iowa straw poll in August, but not for lack of potential. He had a lot of early support and a lot of momentum, and then it all just kind of evaporated because he wasn't here in the state and wasn't collecting it, Chuck Laudner, a conservative activist, told The Washington Post. If he wants to get turnout in the caucus, he's going to have to have a campaign and a turnout mechanism.
Cain is still struggling to do that. He is focusing more on Iowa, but New Hampshire has fallen by the wayside.
In a state with more than 300 elected Republicans in state and county office, does he have any that said they're going to support him? There's no organization; there's no infrastructure, Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, told Politico. If you were a Republican county chairman who wanted to invite him to speak at an event, there's no one to call.
Iowa, New Hampshire Importance Noted
Given that the nomination will be decided state by state, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire are probably a better indicator of success than national polls, and Cain isn't doing well at the state level.
I'm not seeing Cain showing significant gains in the early states, Paleologos told IBTimes. When you look at a national Republican primary poll, a state like Texas is going to have much more weight than states than Iowa and New Hampshire. I think that sometimes that can be deceiving.
Many previous races have gone down to the wire, and the winner of the early primaries and caucuses is not always the winner of the nomination -- but that candidate does have a distinct advantage.
Romney maintains a slim lead over Cain in Iowa, 23 percent to 20 percent in a recent NBC News-Marist College poll, and he has led every poll in New Hampshire since February. If he wins New Hampshire, he has a significant chance of winning the primary, Chandler said.
Romney: Substance That Endures
Cain has gained ground in New Hampshire, but as Reid J. Epstein of Politico put it, New Hampshire voters have a tendency toward temporary crushes. There's a political graveyard full of them. With the exception of Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000, the first primary state has flirted with other candidates, but eventually run back to the original frontrunner.
That would be Romney.
I think what Republicans are going to be looking at is staying power and who's been competitive throughout, Paleologos said, and Romney certainly has.