Herman Cain and the Year of Unpredictable Politics

Conventional Washington wisdom is wrong again. Cain is the one to watch.

Herewith a number of political observations that add up to a prediction:

Observation 1: Conventional wisdom in Washington is almost always wrong. In fact, if an aspiring political scientist at a small college somewhere wanted to make a name for himself, he would find a way to quantify conventional wisdom and also events as they actually unfolded, then chart them together on a graph. If it were possible (which it isn’t), the results would be hilarious.

Observation 2: Washington’s conventional wisdom says the Republican presidential nomination race is unfolding, and will continue to unfold, along predictable lines, and we can see already, based on the polls, that the prize will go by default to Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. A few weeks ago the pundits were convinced (again, based on the polls) that it was a two-man race between Romney and Rick Perry of Texas. Now Perry seems to be falling in the polls, and nobody else seems to be rising, except Herman Cain, who can’t win because, well, he’s not winnable. Just yesterday on The New York Times op-ed page, two columns identified Romney as the probable victor—one explicitly, the other implicitly. Frank Bruni identified Romney as the “most likely’’ winner and added, “The arc of Republican history bends toward the foregone conclusion.’’ And David Brooks, in presenting a hearty case for Romney, left the appearance of a columnist seeking to get ahead of events.

Observation 3: But the polls have little meaning at this point in the process. Remember Howard Dean, practically anointed by the media as the Democratic nominee in 2004—before a single ballot was cast in caucus or primary? As soon as the voters stirred, he faded fast. Four years ago today the GOP frontrunner, based on the polls, was Rudy Giuliani. And John McCain was considered dead in the water. But when actual voting commenced, Giuliani dropped like a rock and McCain quickly nailed down the prize. This horse race doesn’t start until the party yells, “They’re Off!’’ And that doesn’t happen until the Iowa caucuses.

Observation 4: The electorate today is in an agitated state. And why wouldn’t it be? After George W. Bush failed the country by leading it into intractable wars abroad and an economic morass at home, the electorate turned to an attractive young Democrat, who has proved incapable of seriously ameliorating either problem. If you were a Republican who believed in fiscal responsibility, small government and a certain prudence in foreign policy, you were left wondering what happened to your party. If you’re a Democrat who remembers fondly how Bill Clinton governed so deftly and effectively from the center left, you may be wondering what happened to your party. If you’re an independent who selects, at any given time, the party that seems most ready and able to attack the nation’s challenges, you’re probably screaming into your television screen. This voter frustration is the single most significant political factor in the country today. Indeed, current voter agitation is of a magnitude not seen in American politics except in rare instances.

Observation 5: History tells us that, when the electorate turns angry, politics turns unpredictable. Conventional wisdom often misses this because it thinks in conventional terms. Consider the last time the voters turned truly sour, in the early 1990s, when agitation focused on budget deficits, meager economic growth and petty corruption in the House stemming from entrenched power (the House bank and post office scandals). No one predicted the extent to which voters would turn on incumbents in the 1992 congressional elections, turning out twenty-four House members and six senators. The number of House incumbents who garnered at least 60 percent of the vote fell that year to 65.6 percent from 88.5 percent four years earlier. In addition, the presidential campaign unfolded with total unpredictability. Political commentator Patrick Buchanan came from nowhere to collect a stunning 38 percent of the vote against GOP incumbent George H.W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, then went on to garner 2.9 million votes in subsequent contests. Billionaire Ross Perot, a political novice, got into the race as an independent, ran an undisciplined campaign (at one point he exited the race in a huff, but later reentered), and still pulled 19 percent of the general election vote. And the winner that year was a previously obscure Arkansas governor who had been dismissed by Washington’s conventional wisdom at the start of the campaign. These are the kinds of developments that occur during times of voter agitation.

Observation 6: Such developments are almost certain to occur in 2012. Hence the conventional view that we already know the candidate most likely to emerge in the GOP nomination contest is almost certainly wrong. Romney may prove victorious in the end, but there will be unpredictable zigs and zags along the way that will seem outlandish in contemplation but quite normal once they happen. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who is as finely attuned to the pulse of American politics as anyone, says that the underlying frustration and anger in the electorate is almost certain to manifest itself in unforeseen dramatic events as the campaign year unfolds.