A lot of politicos, left and right, seem mystified by an ad produced by Herman Cain, the former pizza CEO who — to their amazement and bemusement — is leading in most of the recent polls for the Republican nomination for president.
The ad was apparently posted on Cain’s website last August, but was discovered by the ever-alert mainstream media only a couple of weeks ago — after it went viral. It can be seen on YouTube, where it has gotten more than a million hits.
The ad features Mark Block, Cain’s chief of staff, giving an impassioned 30 second pitch for his candidate — at the end of which he takes a drag on a cigarette. The ad ends with a brief shot of Cain flashing a mischievous little smile.
The media’s initial reaction to the ad ran the gamut from “what does that have to do with anything?” to “has he taken leave of his senses?” Upon reflection, a more probing and profound analysis emerged: The ad was just a desperate stunt to get some free ink and air-time (which, stunt or not, it did).
Personally, I’m mystified by the media’s mystification. There is a perfectly direct explanation of the ad that should have occurred instantly to all those (formerly) hard drinking, hard smoking denizens of smoke-filled rooms, but inexplicably didn’t.
Surveys show that nearly four out of five adult Americans don’t smoke. But 21 percent of adults do.
That 21 percent works out to 40 million voting-age smokers. No one in either party will give them the time of day or even acknowledge their existence as anything other than a bad influence on children and one more problem on the nation’s agenda — let alone make a pitch for their support.
Smokers are routinely denigrated, demonized and humiliated by public officials. No one stands up for them.
And though three out of four smokers will acknowledge they should quit, chances are most of them harbor at least some resentment towards anti-smoking politicians and activists.
And then along comes Cain, who is making a virtue out of the fact that he has no prior political experience, running an ad that says to smokers in so many words, “I feel your pain. I believe in live and let live, and if elected I won’t nag you, upbraid you and humiliate you for my personal political or professional gain — as a lot of political and journalistic showboats routinely do.”
That may not get him an instant avalanche of votes from smokers, but it should get a lot of voters who feel put upon for smoking to prick up their ears and give him a closer look.
Cain doesn’t have to start an anti-anti-smoking movement to attract smokers’ interest. A simple wink and a nod will do.
And in case there was any doubt about what Cain was trying to do with the ad, he made it explicit when asked.
“One of the themes within this campaign is let Herman be Herman,” Cain told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. “Mark Block is a smoker, and we say let Mark be Mark. That’s all we’re trying to say, because we believe let people be people.”
That’s a message that should resonate with more people than just smokers. Like libertarians for instance. Maybe with some of Ron Paul’s supporters, even. If Cain could split Paul’s support, which has been in low double digits lately, it could change the dynamic of the Republican race in his favor.
Polling shows the nation’s smokers tend to be disproportionately Republican, less educated and blue collar. So the ad should resonate among Republican primary voters and caucus participants who smoke, and there are apt to be a lot of them. As for the less educated and blue-collar demographics, well that also describes Reagan Democrats, who appear increasingly primed to vote Republican in the 2012 election cycle. The ad gives them one more reason to do so.
Also, although the ad should win Cain some smokers’ support, it isn’t likely to cause him to lose much support among non-smokers — other than those who were predisposed to vote against him anyway.
Cain may have no experience in elective office, but as a pizza executive, chances are he has a lot of experience with marketing and sales, and with targeting advertising at overlooked demographics. Before the election is over, I think Cain will be found looking for votes in all sorts of unexpected and ignored constituencies.
The ad may be offbeat and edgy, but it is not ill-considered, and the media that doesn’t know what to make of it may not be nearly as smart as it thinks it is.