ANALYSIS: Political lessons from Herman Cain's campaign

Herman Cain’s campaign is gone, but the political takeaways live on:

1) You must inspire to catch fire. Cain gave Republicans something they hadn’t heard from the other presidential candidates: an inspiring message. Cain gave them a reason to vote for someone, rather than just against someone. And he has a sense of humor. Mitt Romney, who stands to see opponent Newt Gingrich grow stronger from Cain’s implosion, should take note.

2) Our politics need more debates more often. Debates are a great equalizer — if there are enough of them. A candidate with no money can eventually shine through. Any debate beats the canned 30-second TV ads that drive the electorate. Some candidates will flame out like Rick Perry. Some will slowly and steadily rise like Gingrich. Others will do neither and go nowhere, like Jon Huntsman or Michele Bachmann. Some won’t be invited, like Gary Johnson.

3) Florid a matters. Cain, a little-known businessman, went from pipsqueak in the polls to giant-killer almost overnight when he won the Republican Party of Florida’s Presidency 5 straw poll for presidential candidates in September. But the nation’s most-important swing state only matters so much. The previous RPOF straw poll winners went on to win the national Republican nomination for president. Cain broke the streak.

4) Madison Avenue savvy isn’t enough. A great strength of the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO: He knew all about the power of branding and numbers. But Cain couldn’t sell himself as a studious candidate. He declined to give detailed rebuttals to critics of his 9-9-9 tax plan. And he refused to bone on up basics of foreign policy, from the Cuban Adjustment Act to China’s nuclear stockpile.

5) Sex sells. Regardless of a candidate’s persona or message, a sex scandal for which there’s documentation is media catnip. Cain supporters and media critics see media bias at play and point to the coverage of the sexual transgressions of Bill Clinton and John Edwards. Clinton’s scandal unfurled long before the era of the three non-stop cable-news networks, blogs, Twitter and YouTube. There was no credible evidence against Edwards until after he left the campaign trail. And it’s not as if their scandals were ignored once they erupted.

6) Nothing’s private in presidential politics. Every candidate needs to examine his private life before deciding to run for office. If you’ve had documented sex-harassment charges leveled against you, or you’ve phoned and texted an alleged mistress at all hours (as early as 4:26 a.m.), it will come out.

7) An unconventional candidacy cuts both ways. The good thing about being an unconventional candidate is that it gives people what they thirst for: a freshness to our stale politics. But conventions exist for a reason. Cain and his campaign utterly fumbled their response to the sexual misconduct allegations from start to finish. That Keystone Kops quality of the campaign robbed Cain of support as well.

8) The GOP’s grassroots are restless and powerful. Cain was sustained by the grassroots for weeks after the first scandals broke. In Florida, he had rank-and-file grassroots and tea-party supporters in all 67 counties. Had it not been for his stumbles, there was little sign he’d have faded away.

9) The tea party isn’t racist. Liberals kvetch that Cain subtly trafficked in black stereotypes (for instance, by joking that he wanted his Secret Service name to be “Cornbread.”) But a strong segment of Cain’s support was from the tea party. And racists won’t vote for a black person.

10) Candidates never die. They just “suspend” their campaigns. Cain ended his campaign Saturday. But you wouldn’t know that from his words. He said he was “suspending” it. Romney did the same thing in February 2008. It’s December 2011. And Romney’s still running.

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