Mitt Romney and Herman Cain
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain are in a statistical dead heat in the Iowa caucuses and in South Carolina's first-in-the-south primary. Reuters

Herman Cain holds an astounding 20-point lead over Mitt Romney in a poll of Republican primary voters released Thursday, and he is in a statistical tie with President Obama.

The IBOPE Zogby poll, conducted Oct. 3-5, found that 38 percent of Republicans would vote for Cain, a Georgia businessman, if the primary elections were held today. Mitt Romney had 18 percent support, and Rick Perry and Ron Paul were tied with 12 percent support each.

The rest of the candidates were in the low single digits, with Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman claiming 4 percent support each, Michele Bachmann 3 percent, Rick Santorum one percent, and Gary Johnson less than one percent.

Cain received 46 percent to Obama's 44 percent in a hypothetical matchup. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, making the race a statistical tie.

Seismic Shift in 2012 GOP Race

The poll reflects a seismic shift since the last debate on Sept. 22. Before that debate, Perry led almost all polls, and Romney was consistently in second place.

But voters were angered by Perry's statement that the children of illegal immigrants should be eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in Texas, and especially by his harsh characterization of anyone who disagreed with that stance: I don't think you have a heart.

In polls conducted since then, support for Perry has dropped by more than 10 percentage points. His fall made Romney the front-runner by default, but Republican voters have been far from passionate about the former Massachusetts governor, so they began to look for another alternative.

And so Cain surged from the back of the field to the first tier. First, a Fox News poll showed him in third place, behind Romney and Perry. Then, on Tuesday, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed him tied with Romney for first place. And at the end of the week, the Zogby poll came out with him 20 points ahead.

Cain really picked up a lot of those that were leaning Perry, Corry Schiermeyer, senior vice president for corporate relations at Zogby, told IBTimes. With Cain actually being reported on more, his profile has risen over the past few weeks, and the more people have learned, the more they have gone toward him.

Schiermeyer attributed the difference between the Zogby results and the results of other recent polls to the fact that Zogby polled only self-identified likely Republican voters. Some polls include Republicans who may not be likely to vote, or both Republicans and independents, which leads to different numbers.

To say Cain's lead is impressive would be an understatement, but his popularity in national polls may not be indicative of his chances of winning the nomination, David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston, said in an interview with IBTimes.

Which Primary Will Mean More: New Hampshire or Texas?

We don't have a national Republican primary, [but] when you look at a national Republican primary poll, a state like Texas, where Cain is showing more strength, is going to have much more weight than states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Paleologos said. I think that can be deceiving, given that the early primaries have so much more media attention and really get a chance to springboard a candidate into the national spotlight.

Cain has not been campaigning much in Iowa or New Hampshire, and Paleologos said that polls he and his colleagues at Suffolk University conducted showed Cain doing poorly in those states, which hold the first votes of the primary season.

His overall campaign infrastructure, or lack thereof, is also a problem, according to Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College.

Cain's lead is not sustainable. He doesn't have a significant campaign organization in important early primary states, which is a critical component of mobilizing voters and raising money, Chandler told IBTimes. Current polls have been conducted on a national level, which isn't as good of a predictor of success as state-level polls. Romney does much better in these polls. Romney is also polling very well in New Hampshire. If Romney wins New Hampshire, he has a significant chance of winning the primary.

Meteoric rises are nothing new in this race, and many candidates who have risen quickly, like Perry and Donald Trump, have faded just as quickly.

Cain is clearly a stronger candidate than he was a few weeks ago, but, at the same time, Republican voters have been fickle, jumping on a new candidate's bandwagon and then jumping back off.

Many in the Republican Party are just not overly excited about all of their choices, so when they have something it seems like they're excited about, they latch onto them, Schiermeyer said. I wouldn't discount Romney just because this week's poll came in with Cain ahead 20 percent.

Paleologos added: I think what Republicans are probably going to be looking at is staying power and who has been competitive throughout. Is Romney going to be the turtle of the race, and you're going to have all these rabbits running ahead and falling behind?