Nate Silver had some fun yesterday tweeting a challenge, “looking for professional writers/pundits/academics who are so sure Cain won’t win the NOMINATION that they’ll quit if he does.” As it turns out, Silver himself gives Cain very little chance of winning…as Matt Glassman wrote in a peeved response, it seems that Silver gives Cain about a 1 or 2 percent shot at the nomination. I promise I’ll get to Cain’s chances farther down, but first two paragraphs of thumbsucking, which you’re welcome to skip. And if you get to the end of his long post, some cool new advertising!

So part of this is just about how to write appropriate caveats. What do I think? I think it’s tricky. My natural impulse is to constantly include all the proper caveats: unless there’s information we don’t know about. Given that this time follows previous patterns. Assuming that so-and-so is interested in re-election. If nothing else has changed.

And yet, I also know that people don’t want to have to get through all of that every time. Should I force them to? It’s not all that easy a call to make, it seems to me. So I try to balance it out…I try to remember to include a general disclaimer fairly often (in politics, anything is possible); I try to make assumptions explicit as often as I can without making the prose impenetrable to most casual readers. So, the other day I said that Newt is “never, ever, ever going to be president of the United States, and will almost certainly never again be allowed to have any real responsibility greater than hawking his endless output of books and movies.” Too strong? Can I imagine a .0001% scenario in which he winds up in the Oval Office? Sure. But I’m comfortable with using absolutes to substitute for that.

So Cain’s chances right now? What I’ve been saying for months is that there’s a small group of plausible nominees — trimmed now to just Mitt Romney and Rick Perry — and that the combined odds of that group winning the nomination are safely over 90%, and probably fairly close (but not quite) 100%. To translate that from speculative, subjective but inappropriately mathematical language: if you put together basic qualifications an campaign accomplishments, only Romney and Perry are similar to any of the candidates who have won nominations or come close to winning nominations over the last 30 years — and not only is it likely that the same patterns will hold in 2012 that held in previous contests, but there’s nothing in particular about what’s happening now that hints of radical change.

That is, every candidate who won or came close in previous cycles was from the group of party politicians with conventional credentials and policy positions within the mainstream of their party. Conventional credentials? Current or recent Senator or Governor or VP or VP nominee are the main ones, but I’d include significant generals and high-ranking exec
anch officials too, as well as notable Members of the House. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and around the edges there’s plenty of room for uncertainty, but it’s easy to see that Herman Cain is clearly outside of the normal group, and I’d put all the rest (Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich, Paul, Johnson, Hunstman) outside too — remember, mainstream policy positions is part of it, although most of those have a better case than Cain.

Now, the next thing is to check and see whether this time is different. What I’d say there is that there’s just no indication of that so far. Oh, Cain is polling fairly well, but that’s not unusual; we’ve had candidates do so both in the past (Rudy Giuliani) and this year (Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rudy again) who didn’t fit into the “conventional credentials & policy mainstream)” group, and what we’ve seen is that it’s easy for their support to fizzle rapidly. Same, by the way, with plausible nominees — as Howard Dean showed in ’04. There’s just no real reason to take early polling results, by themselves, seriously.

Now, good polling along with other indications of success would be something else entirely. But other than the good polling numbers, I can’t think of anything Cain right now has going for him — that is, any indication that the normal rules don’t hold. He’s not just doing badly in winning support from party actors; he appears to be striking out entirely, with basically zero high-profile endorsements, little success in recruiting a solid staff, and little fundraising success.

Beyond that…well, we’ve had gaffe-prone nominees, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s a real minus, nevertheless. The same with poor internal campaign management; John McCain and Bob Dole won despite that problem, but it’s almost certainly a negative indicator. Then there’s lack of effort in Iowa and New Hampshire…it’s hard to know what that translates into on caucus day, but it’s another minus.

I guess what I’d say is that, sure, there’s probably a small chance that Something Is Different This Time — or that something really goofy happens within the normal way the game is played — and someone other than Romney or Perry will win. Call that 2%, although that’s just attaching numbers to assumptions. Then within that, what are the odds that it’s Cain who would benefit? I don’t know, but other than successfully moving up to the level of debate-attending also rans, I’m not convinced that he’s made any other significant progress. That’s not nothing; ten months ago Buddy Roemer was more likely than Herman Cain, and that’s totally reversed by now. Last time I wrote about implausible nominees winning in April I said that Newt, Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman were the most likely of the implausibles; I think I’d now add Cain to that list, but that’s about it. So maybe my view is that he has 20% of 2% of a chance, or something like that.

And yes: if things shake out completely differently than how I see them, that would certainly make me go back and question what I think I know about the process. Maybe I and other political scientists have had it wrong all along; maybe the world has changed (meaning either the Republican Party or the nomination process) in some way that we need to account for. Both of those, no doubt, are certainly possible. All I can say for now is that I don’t see any sign of it in anything that’s happened so far.

Oh, and do you want to know more about what political scientists know about the nomination process? Then the book you want to order right now is William G. Mayer and Jonathan Bernstein, eds., The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012. Available real soon! Bill has been putting together the definitive edited volume on presidential nominations for several cycles now, and he added me to the mix this time around — and the new collection is excellent, if I do say so myself. I’m afraid this is probably not the last you’ll hear about The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012 around here, but I’m pretty sure that all the cool kids will be pre-ordering (and I hear that all the hip profs will be using it in their spring classes next semester). More info to come.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.