Would Cain Be Leading the Race if He Were White?

by Stuart Rothenberg November 4, 2011 · 9:00 AM EDT

Longtime readers of this column may get the feeling that they have seen this headline before.

Three and a half years ago, I wrote a column with a similar title after former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.), a supporter of presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, asserted that Barack Obama wouldn’t be where he was in the Democratic race if he wasn’t black.

Ferraro, who died in March but forever will be remembered as the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party, was vilified at the time for her comment and forced to step down from the Clinton campaign’s finance committee.

In that 2008 column, I came to the obvious conclusion that the answer was “no,” Obama would not have been a major factor in the Democratic race if he had been white. Whatever effect his race had on him growing up, Obama’s presidential bid was helped, not hurt, by his skin color.

Clinton had a natural advantage with female voters and liberals, and because of her husband’s unique appeal in the African-American community, she would also have had the advantage with black voters. Her story, as the first woman with a good chance to be nominated by a major party and elected president, was compelling.

But along came Obama with his even more compelling story, and suddenly Obama’s profile and message of change trumped Clinton’s. A white hopeful with Obama’s personal narrative and oratorical skills might have been an interesting candidate, but he would have had little chance of overcoming Clinton or even elbowing John Edwards out of the Democratic race.

In many ways, Herman Cain’s situation in the Republican race is quite different from Obama’s in 2008 — and not only because Cain’s candidacy is at risk following reports of alleged sexual harassment and because of his mishandling of the controversy.

Among the many differences between Cain and Obama is that Cain isn’t actually “leading” the Republican race at the moment. He and Mitt Romney are ahead in national polls and in Iowa, but the caucuses and primaries haven’t even begun. When I wrote about how Obama’s race played into his success, he had already won caucuses and primaries and had demonstrated that he was a serious contender for his party’s nomination.

Unlike the Democrats, the GOP has only a small contingent of African-Americans in its party, and “diversity” and “multiculturalism” aren’t highly valued by party activists, caucus attendees or primary voters.

Republican and Democratic voters are motivated by ideology, but in the case of Democrats, race (racism, equality, fairness, justice, etc.) is an integral part of their ideological equation. That’s not the case with Republicans, who prefer to look past group membership and stress the individual.

Unlike Obama, Cain initially wasn’t the preferred choice for rank-and-file activists, who lined up first behind Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and then Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Cain would never have been given the opportunity to emerge as an alternative to Romney on the right if Perry, in particular, had a successful campaign launch. But when Perry stumbled, conservatives looked around for someone else other than Romney whom they could rally around, and they found Cain.

Obama created his candidacy out of nothing and didn’t need someone else to fail before he was given a look by Iowa and then national Democrats.

While Obama’s race clearly was a significant factor in his appeal to core Democratic constituencies (blacks, liberals and younger voters), Cain’s race wasn’t a similar factor within the GOP. But that’s not to say that it is irrelevant either.

The thought of rallying behind a conservative African-American candidate for the Republican nomination undoubtedly is appealing to many conservatives, if only to prove to liberals and journalists that they aren’t the racists they are often portrayed to be.

Just as important, many Republicans understand that black conservatives and conservative women drive Democrats up the wall. So supporting Cain is a way for conservative Republicans to get just an extra bit of satisfaction knowing how it rattles their opponents. (Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “a shill and cover for the most insidious form of racism.”)

This isn’t to suggest that conservatives are embracing Cain because he is black. Perennial African-American candidate Alan Keyes never made much of a splash during his presidential bids, and if Cain’s race were such an important factor to Republicans, they would have embraced him before they flirted with Bachmann and Perry.

Still, Cain stands out in the current Republican field for his charisma, plain-speaking, business experience and, yes, his color. It’s part of who he is and of his appeal to conservatives. But if Cain were white, he might very well be where he is today given the performance of the rest of the GOP field and the desire of conservatives for an alternative to Romney.