How did the campaign for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination turn into such a joke?
“We are protecting Herman Cain,” announced a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service on Nov. 18. The Godfather’s Pizza magnate became the first Republican candidate for U.S. president to request Secret Service protection in this election cycle, and a campaign spokesman told the Washington Post that Cain needed protection from reporters, who have been “trying to follow him with a lot of heavy equipment and cameras.” Cain later denied this, saying only that he needed the protection “because of the popularity of my campaign.” By the time he said that, though, his popularity was declining, with polls showing that his support was going to another candidate—Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker who resigned in disgrace in 1998 and spent most of the next few years reviewing spy novels on amazon.com. It was a familiar step in a bizarre campaign season: reporters stop focusing on one transparently unelectable candidate, and move on to what historian Rick Perlstein calls “the next shiny object,” an equally unelectable candidate.
The Republican campaign season, from Donald Trump’s birtherism to Rick Perry’s inability to remember which government agency he wanted to cut, has been one of the wildest in recent memory. It drove apostate conservative David Frum to lament the effect the conservative movement was having on the presidential race: in a widely discussed article, he called the parade of Tea Party candidates “a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff.” With Republican voters fired up to beat Barack Obama but also disillusioned with politics in general, any candidate who claims to be a political outsider can get a serious look. Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican operative and former gubernatorial candidate, told Maclean’s that candidates like Cain or Trump “are products of the voters’ concerns about the failure of the current system to produce leaders who can solve problems.”
There have always been freaky candidates in every election, of course. Cain, an amusing rich guy who got a lot of publicity and then flamed out, isn’t that different from Steve Forbes in the 1996 and 2000 elections—except that Forbes actually won a couple of primaries. But usually there are a few respectable candidates that the race can focus on: in 2000, it was mostly about George W. Bush and John McCain, and we could easily dismiss most of the fringe candidates. In this cycle, it’s the respectable Republicans who are getting dismissed, while the fringe candidates rise. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who had an impressive resumé and was taken seriously by the press, attracted no interest and was forced to drop out early.