I’ve gotten to know Paul Begala sitting with him in the greenroom at CNN and he has some of the most consistently awesome political anecdotes in modern America. Feel free to disagree with him on politics and policy as I usually do, but in any encounter with Begala you’ll come away knowing more about American politics than you entered the room knowing.One of the anecdotes he shared with me once has stuck with me as perhaps the most insightful commentary on winning elections in America. Anne Richards was quite a popular governor in Texas and George W. Bush still managed to beat her rather handily. After Richards’ defeat, she called President Clinton and told him the lesson she’d learned from her defeat.Governor Richards told President Clinton that it was not enough to run on what you did as a leader, but rather to run on what you were going to do as a leader. This connects in with one of the most consistent themes in American politics — people want to vote for something, not vote against someone.In 2008, people voted against the Republicans, but if you asked most people they didn’t see themselves voting against Bush and the GOP so much as they were voting for something new and shiny — a new way, a new face, a new hope, and some change.This is why Herman Cain won the straw poll.
Yes, to be clear, there have been enough media interviews and surveys with enough Florida straw poll voters to conclude that a good number of people voted for Cain because they wanted to send a message to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney that they, the voters, are not happy with them on either their performance or their positions or something else.But 37% of people voting did not pay money to vote to send a message to someone else. They paid money to participate in the straw poll to vote for Herman Cain.And it is easy enough for me to explain. They voted for Herman Cain because he is not running against Barack Obama so much as he is running for an America he believes in and that other people can get excited about. People love Herman Cain’s optimism. They love his vision. They love his 9-9-9 plan. The last is key. Herman has an articulated, easy to remember plan for economic recovery in his 9-9-9 plan. Quick! What is Mitt Romney’s plan? Jon Huntsman’s? Rick Perry’s? Michele Bachmann’s? They all, more or less, have them, but they are not readily memorable or easy to understand.Herman Cain is consistently conservative, he is running for something, not against someone, and he is the most optimistic candidate on stage.In addition to learning a lot from Paul Begala, I’ve learned a lot from James Carville. Carville has an easy to understand rule we’re seeing playing out right now. The most optimistic candidate wins.Do I see a path to victory for Herman Cain? No. But that may now change. It is too soon to tell. He has some internal issues that need to be resolved. But I do want to make it very clear — Herman Cain may or may not win the nomination, but right now he is the center of gravity within the Republican field and all the other candidates are, after last week, being pulled into his orbit.And that is a very good thing.