Can you win a Republican presidential primary race without really spending any time or having any infrastructure in the key states that will secure the nomination?
Herman Cain seems to be testing that theory.
All this while the candidate is spending next to no time in any of those three states. Down in South Carolina, for example, they’ve never heard of the robust campaign operation Cain is talking up in the trail recently.
“If Herman Cain had a legitimate campaign in South Carolina he would have a chance to win,” a senior Republican operative in the Palmetto state told TPM. “Nothing anyone’s seen resembles that.”
The operative spoke of a South Carolina Cain campaign no one could get a hold of, that didn’t show up where expected and didn’t have the experience to run a race much lower down the ticket, much less a presidential race.
Still, polls show he’s got the support to make a stand in South Carolina — but those familiar with how Republican elections work in the state say Cain’s operation just doesn’t have what it takes to make political hay out of his poll numbers.
“The air and the organization on the ground will decide who wins and who loses,” said Todd Kincannon, a former executive director of the SC GOP who’s unaffiliated in the current presidential contest. “Cain’s got nothing in either category from what I can tell.”
Kincannon predicted Cain’s strong polling in the state will fall fast, thanks to stories like TPM’s about the Cain campaign spending tens of thousands buying his own books. He said Cain has suffered since a recent staff shakeup.
“The only operative I knew was Ellen Carmichael,” Kincannon said, referring to the former Cain spokesperson who split with the campaign last month. “She was the only person that had any contact.”
Kincannon says he goes to a lot of GOP events in the state and “could name you a person with every campaign in South Carolina.” His own father is “a big Herman Cain guy,” he told TPM.
But Kincannon couldn’t find his dad Cain gear at any of the GOP events he’s been attending. So eventually his father had to go online to buy a hat. This is not a good sign, the operative said.
“Cain’s got nothing,” Kincannon said. “When [Rick] Perry people go door to door, he’s got nothing to fight it except automated phone calls.”
South Carolina’s not the only state Cain is ignoring, even as he climbs the polls.
The New York Times noted earlier this month that Cain headed off for a national book tour just as his campaign was starting to pick up steam. And Politico noted Tuesday that even Cain supporters in Iowa are saying his absence in the state has kept his on-the-ground organization pretty quiet.
How quiet? ABC News stopped by Cain’s Iowa HQ about a week ago and found it totally empty.
There are few signs that this strategy of steering clear of the early primary states to hawk his book will be changing anytime soon. Matt Martini, a spokesperson for Cain, told TPM Tuesday that Cain’s next couple weeks of campaigning include just one scheduled stop in Iowa for the Faith and Freedom Conference this weekend.
Other than that, the plan calls for Cain to be Michigan and Illinois along with some stops in Texas. His plan for next weekend is a two-day bus tour through Alabama.
Martini emphasized that the plan is “fluid” and is subject to change, but these are not the kind of tactical decisions most presidential campaigns make around 70 days before the Iowa caucuses.
Of course, Cain’s got a raft of new problems now that he’s a frontrunner that could make the scheduling decisions secondary to everything else. He’s facing new questions about where all that money he’s raised has gone, huge new holes are being blown in the side of 9-9-9 everyday and now he’s facing the embarrassment of that 4-hour flip-flop on whether or not he’d negotiate with terrorists.
Those missteps have yet to find their way into polling, and when they do they could change the whole dynamic of the Cain surge. But for now, it’s hard to see that Cain is making the most of his polling bump when it comes to, you know, winning an actual primary.
For his part, Cain says there’s nothing to worry about.
“A lot of folks have been saying, ‘you are doing a big book tour. You don’t have campaign staff. You only have you know, a few people here and there in New Hampshire and Iowa,’” Cain told CNN after the debate Tuesday. “Let me correct a few misconceptions.”
Cain said his book tour was only six days long and and combined the “release of the book and mixture of campaign events.” He said he’s raising plenty of money and adding staff in all the states he needs to compete in.
In short, Cain said, he’s “in it to win it.”