I was reading this Yglesias post the other day and it really made me think, specifically this bit:

The ridiculous thing about these Republican debates is that you keep needing to wade through this vast field of candidates who are essentially doing book tours in order to hear the actual presidential candidates debate. Rick Santorum is not going to be a major party presidential nominee. Nor will Herman Cain. Michele Bachmann had a brief moment when it kinda sorta maybe looked like she could possibly break through, but she didn’t. The actual choice Republicans are making at the moment is whether Rick Perry or Mitt Romney will run against Barack Obama. This is an interesting question, and I for one would like to see the relevant information presented rather than a lot of nonsense from pizza salesmen and Newt Gingrich.

I must confess that I never thought seriously about the idea that certain people are in the race for the sake of something other than winning the nomination. I had just axiomatically thought that if you are running, then you are running to win.

The interesting bit for me after reading the above excerpt is that there is no real reason for this to be the case. Running in a nomination process can be about a lot of things other than actually winning the nomination. You may like the attention and thrill of running. You may want to write a book in the near future and have people know who you are. You may want an additional invitation to speak at a Heritage Foundation event. Or whatever.

The point being that certain people enter a race solely to win (Mitt Romney, for one) and certain others are in for some other combination of stuff, probably realizing they don’t have/never had a real shot.

My guess is that Herman Cain was in the latter camp. I have serious doubts about the idea that when deciding upon whether to run or not, Cain actually thought: “You know what? I could win this thing!” It just doesn’t seem plausible.

I think we can see evidence of this proposition by comparing the seriousness with which Cain has treated policy compared to someone like Romney. Romney has a detailed economic plan on jobs which is 87 pages long, up on his website. Cain is famous for his 9-9-9 economic plan, which, as this post by Ezra Klein notes, doesn’t have a whole lot of substance behind it. Worse still is that the proponents of the plan are quite open about not caring about this one iota:

But my colleague Jennifer Rubin got his economic adviser Rich Lowrie to confront it directly. And Lowrie says that this just wasn’t something he or Cain was interested in when developing the 9-9-9 plan. He called it “Washington thinking” to worry about who would pay how much under the new system, and he “repeatedly refused to say how much more of the tax burden would be borne by the poor and middle class.”

This really is just a function of the fact that Romney has a real economic team behind him, with real economists at top universities (whether you agree with them or not is immaterial for the purposes of this discussion) while Cain, evidently, does not.

It’s a similar pattern in foreign policy. Romney assembled a shadow national security council, and released a proper white paper on foreign policy. But when it comes to Herman Cain, as Dan Drezner notes, there’s no there there: he has devoted a considered five paragraphs to foreign policy on his website.

So it’s pretty clear that Cain got in this without really hoping or expecting to be taken seriously. Five paragraphs on foreign policy and an economic plan as long as an area code may signal a lot of things, but an expectation to win is probably not amongst them.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with running with no intention or expectation of winning, per se. Lots more people know about Herman Cain now than they would have if he hadn’t run. That is probably going to benefit him in important ways for the remainder of his political career.

There’s only one problem, and that is that Cain is now effectively leading the Republican polls, tied with Mitt Romney. This is from Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls:

What’s clear from that graph is that Cain (red line) has only picked up pace as the Tea Party and hard-right favorite Rick Perry (blue line) has dropped off a cliff. Which raises the question: what happens if and when Michele Bachman folds? Her 4.7% will presumably go disproportionately to Cain rather than Romney. Romney will probably pick up the Huntsman vote when he’s out. The Gingrich and Paul shares are harder to guess, so I won’t bother.

My point is this: I don’t think Cain has even come close to his ceiling yet, whereas Romney probably has. And if Perry continues to slip, only Cain is going to benefit. What on earth is the Republican establishment going to do then? How are they going to handle the fact that their front-runner is a guy whose immigration policy is an electrified fence and US troops armed with live ammunition on the Mexico border?

Anyway, since we’re on the topic of Herman Cain, I really liked the discussion on Cain and race in this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates.