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Harassment Allegations Could Cut at Core of Cain’s Appeal

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog defending Herman Cain against what I think are overconfident conclusions from the press and political scientists about the viability of his candidacy. So I think it’s only fair to tell you when I think he might have a real problem on his hands. And I’ve become convinced that the sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Cain are a real problem.

A long, long time ago on the predecessor to this blog, I came up with a series of questions that were meant to tease out whether a potential scandal will produce long-term damage to a candidate. In the spirit of the baseball statistician Bill James’s Keltner list, they make an attempt to frame subjective judgments in a systematic way.

Perhaps the most important of the questions was this one:

Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

Put another way: does the scandal have the potential to undermine the qualities that made the candidate successful?

To answer this question, we first have to ask another one: what are Herman Cain’s core positives?

Gallup’s recent polling on the favorability of the Republican candidates, completed before the allegations broke, points us in the right direction: Mr. Cain has by far the best favorability ratings of any of the Republicans. He has also been the only one to have seen his numbers improve over the course of the campaign.

But this compels yet another question: why do voters find Mr. Cain so easy to like? A recent focus group on Mr. Cain and the other Republican candidates gives us the answer.

Confirming Gallup polls, Cain was viewed as the most likable of the candidates, a people person, a hard-working businessman, a potential problem solver and someone who many said would be a good neighbor. “He’s Main Street,” said Becky Leighty, a Republican. “He’s not Wall Street, and he’s not a politician.”

There are actually five separate positive qualities mentioned here, each of which could be compromised to varying degrees depending on how the scandal develops.

He’s a people person. This term is a little vague, but it’s often raised in a business context; one Web site describes it as someone who “is dedicated to creating and maintaining [a] positive company culture.” If the allegations are true, however, we know that Mr. Cain made at least two women in his employ feel deeply uncomfortable.

He’s a hard-working businessman. Nothing about the allegations would cut against Mr. Cain’s work ethic. But the incidents were alleged to have happened in the context of his job at the National Restaurant Association. Mr. Cain can continue to tell other success stories, like his turnaround of the flailing brand Godfather’s Pizza, but he will probably be reluctant to mention his time at the restaurant lobby.

He’s a potential problem solver.The conservative-leaning blogger Donald Douglas raises the concern about this one. “As outrageous as this whole thing is,” Mr. Douglas writes, “I’m still pretty taken aback by how amateurish was the Cain campaign’s response to the revelations.”

Given that the allegations were not inherently all that detailed or salacious, Mr. Cain’s somewhat contradictory responses to them seem to have created a problem for his campaign rather than solved one. They have also potentially created a problem for his former employer, which is now facing questions like whether one of its board members leaked the news and whether it might consider releasing one of the women from her confidentiality agreement.

He’s someone who many said would be a good neighbor. One would assume that a good neighbor would not sexually harass his other neighbors — but so far, there has been very little detail about the comments or conduct that the women might have found objectionable. However, with at least one of the women wanting to tell her side of the story pending  release from the confidentiality agreement, that could potentially change soon.

He’s not a politician. This has arguably been Mr. Cain’s greatest strength, even if it also the reason that many in establishment circles haven’t taken his campaign seriously. Even the other “outsider” candidates, like Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, have held elected office. At a time when politicians are less popular than ever, there’s differentiation for Mr. Cain in not having done so.

The allegations, of course, would not transform Mr. Cain into a “career politician.” But his responses to them have been, at times, lawyerly and political. It may seem to voters as though he’s not being forthright, and that is one of the reasons they despise politicians.

So I do think this scandal cuts against some of the core of Mr. Cain’s brand. That favorability score may go down, and if so, his polling numbers against the other candidates will probably follow.

This is to be weighed against the fact that Mr. Cain has received a generally sympathetic response from conservative bloggers and radio hosts — whom conservative voters will trust more than Politico or The New York Times.

Still, blaming the messenger, if it can be an invaluable first line of defense, can also be a strategy with a short shelf life. Eventually, not just one or two news outlets but dozens of them may be reporting (or speculating) on the story, and it may enter the electorate’s bloodstream, at which point voters forget about where it came from. In addition, the other side of the story — in this case, the women who accused Mr. Cain of harassment — may eventually make their case to the public directly, in which case there is no messenger to blame.

Obviously, the impact of the scandal on Mr. Cain’s candidacy will be easier to determine once we have objective evidence like polls to look at. There is also the possibility that Mr. Cain makes an emotional confession to some of the allegations, or that it will be determined that one of the other Republican campaigns leaked the story to news outlets, each of which would change its dynamics significantly. But to state the obvious, there is considerably more downside than upside for Mr. Cain.

If you thought Mr. Cain’s candidacy was every bit as strong as his polling numbers suggested, it might not be enough to derail his campaign. And if you thought he had no chance to begin with and his candidacy was just for show, they matter no more than the latest Linsday Lohan rumors.

But if you’re like me and thought the truth lay somewhere in between — Mr. Cain had a legitimate shot to win the nomination, but not as good a chance as his polls suggested — that’s when they could make the most difference.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.