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If Herman Cain Quits The GOP Race, Where Will His Supporters Go?

Herman Cain leaves the Big Sky Diner on Nov. 10, 2011 in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Herman Cain leaves the Big Sky Diner on Nov. 10, 2011 in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Herman Cain's decision to reassess the status of his Republican presidential campaign in the wake of allegations he engaged in a long-term extramarital affair raises questions beyond will-he-or-won't-he drop out.

One of the big ones?

Which candidate in the still-crowded GOP field would benefit most if Cain ends his White House quest?

We put that question to Republicans in the early contest states of Iowa, which will hold its caucuses Jan. 3, and New Hampshire, where the nation's first primary will be held Jan. 10. What we heard wasn't all that surprising.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest not-Mitt Romney conservative to surge in presidential polls, is seen as most likely to capture voters who have previously told pollsters they support Cain.

"The consensus among people I sit around and have a beer with is that if Herman does get out, it's going to benefit Newt more than anyone," says Darrell Kearney, finance director for the Polk County Republicans.

"There was already a rising tide of energy toward Newt here," says Kearney, who expects more than 400 people at a county party dinner Thursday that will feature an appearance by Gingrich.

In New Hampshire, WMUR.com political director James Pindell says that recent polls there have shown a direct correlation between Cain's drop in state support over the past month and the rise of Gingrich.

"It's all been moving toward Gingrich, anyway," Pindell says.

The reality for Cain, in both Iowa and New Hampshire, is that his star had already been fading significantly following revelations of past sexual harassment complaints against him and his poor performances in debates and interviews.

But some still saw possibilities for Cain, even after the reports of harassment surfaced in October.

"He weathered his unpleasant November pretty well in terms of his numbers, but he was definitely slipping," says John Stineman, a Republican strategist in Iowa. "His opportunity to win was hampered by the previous [harassment] allegations, but it was not a candidacy killer."

Cain's biggest problem with the party base in Iowa, before Ginger White's claim Monday that she had a 13-year affair with the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, was his perceived lack of mastery of foreign and domestic policy issues.

"It comes down to policy questions people have and questions about his readiness," says Iowa Tea Party activist Ryan Rhodes, who supports GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman.

"We're talking about the president of the United States here," he said. "I don't see a path to victory for [Cain] in Iowa."

The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll in late October had Cain leading as the choice of 23 percent of those surveyed. Romney was at 22 percent, Ron Paul at 12 percent, and Gingrich at 7 percent. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman were all also in single digits.

A New Hampshire poll released last week by WMUR-TV and the University of New Hampshire showed Romney preferred by 42 percent, Gingrich at 15 percent (a 9-point gain from the previous month's poll) and Paul at 12 percent.

Cain, who had come in second in a similar October poll, had fallen into a fifth place tie with Perry at 4 percent.

That speaks to Fergus Cullen's assessment that there may not really be many Cain supporters to move to Gingrich, or any of the other candidates.

Cullen, the former New Hampshire GOP chairman, sees Cain as more of a poll phenomenon than a candidate who ever had any hard support or viable organization.

A Cain departure from the race will have "no impact, really," Cullen predicts.

"He has no organization, hardly any identified supporters," he says. "I never believed he had support that earlier polls indicated."

In Iowa, Republican Mike Mahaffey, a former state party chairman, had a counterintuitive take.

"You think to yourself, people are going to go from Cain, who was proud of the fact that he didn't have any political experience, and go to someone, like Gingrich, who has a lot?" Mahaffey says.

"But timing is everything, and, to quote [National Review journalist] Richard Brookhiser, the presidency is not an entry-level position," he says. "We have some real serious problems in this country, and you can turn to somebody who doesn't have any experience and is proud of it, or someone who can get something done."

The thrice-married Gingrich now seems to be benefiting, in a way that may have seemed highly improbable just a month or two ago, from his long tenure in Washington as a legislator, lobbyist and "historian."

He's also benefiting, Mahaffey says, from having had his personal problems (divorce, affairs) in the past. And not smack in the middle of a presidential campaign.

But, as Kearney, the Polk County GOP chair, puts it: "30 days to go to the caucuses and anything can happen."

Now it's looking more and more likely that it will happen without Herman Cain.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.