Raising Herman Cain

Georgia’s longshot presidential candidate attracts a rabid base

It started in 2009 with a tentative, polite email. “I asked his secretary if Herman Cain would be embarrassed if I launched a draft effort on Facebook for him to run for president,” says Maurice Atkinson, a forty-nine-year-old insurance agent in Macon. “Herman called me back immediately and started chuckling. People accused me of having a man crush on Herman, but I said, ‘No, I’m on a mission to get something going for our country.’”

Atkinson is not alone in his zeal, according to more than 25,000 followers on the site he established. Cain, the Atlanta entrepreneur and radio talk show host who resuscitated Godfather’s Pizza, has made the talking heads swivel with his unexpected rankings—just out of the gate, he polled at 10 percent, ahead of even Michele Bachmann, despite a lack of name recognition among two-thirds of Republican voters—and the spark plug fervor of his adherents, who call themselves “Hermanators” and “Cainiacs.”

“People who have never been interested in politics before will gladly walk through the fires of hell for him,” marvels Atkinson.

Cain claims a war chest of barely $2 million, relying mostly on small, online donations, but his business associates from Whirlpool and Hallmark have bolstered his “Friends of Herman Cain” PAC.

The business-centered campaign, which calls for abolishing the IRS, has won over some Independents and Democrats, but his most reliable base is the Tea Party, which seems in the giddy throes of a collective man crush notable for crossing traditional demographic boundaries. Cain—an African American conservative who speaks in ministerial cadences, jokes that he is the “dark horse,” and denounces “playing the race card”—has endeared himself even to the movement’s most splenetic and unreconstructed Obama-haters, the so-called “crackers for Cain.”

“Herman is a real brother, though,” says Rufus Montgomery, an African American founding member of the board of directors of the Conservative Policy Leadership Institute. He promptly wrote a check for $2,500 to Cain’s campaign after hearing the candidate speak.

The appeal of Cain, whose slogan is “Let’s Get Real,” transcends all of the “too easy story lines,” says Atkinson, a white Republican who has never attended a Tea Party rally. “Herman does not focus on race; he focuses on issues,” says Atkinson, “and he is genuinely engaged with people. Of course, when you work without a script, you’re more likely to stick your foot in your mouth with an off-the-cuff remark that becomes part of the endless news cycle.” (Cain said communities have a right to ban mosques.)

Another campaign donor, Atlanta attorney Blake Halberg, adds, “Herman is the black Ronald Reagan. His message is easy to understand.”

Cain, who lives in Stockbridge, grew up on Albert Street, with his father holding down three jobs as a janitor, barber, and chauffeur while his mother worked as a domestic maid. Cain was a Morehouse Man, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1967. Before entering the restaurant business, he worked as a computer systems analyst for the Coca-Cola Company, and more recently he honed his message on WSB’s The Herman Cain Show.

Atkinson discovered him in 1997 when Cain galvanized a meeting of Walmart managers. “He was explaining practical approaches for a successful life, for believing in yourself with the knowledge that, if you work hard without whining, you can beat the odds. I think that’s the core of his popularity. People want to believe in the promise of America again, and he has done so much already that everyone said couldn’t be done.”

Photograph by johntrainor of Flickr

Candice Dyer is one of our editorial contributors.
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