The world according to polls, or some part of it anyway, is telling us that former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain is now the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The latest NBC News/Wall Street public opinion survey has him the choice of 27 percent of GOP primary voters asked, to 23 for Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and only 16 for Rick Perry of Texas.
Is there anybody in the general audience willing to bet his first-born, or even second or third, that Mr. Cain will be his party's nominee next year, let alone be sitting in the Oval Office come January 2013? Mr. Cain himself jokes about being "the flavor of the month" -- he's Haagen-Dazs Black Walnut, he says. But history shows few such flavors ever survive the long haul.
The last true presidential long shot who did was former one-term Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976. He camped out in Iowa for most of a year, won a surprise caucus victory kicking off the process and went on from there. The Carter phenomenon thereafter encouraged a host of other gamblers, but no other has since succeeded.
You have to go all the way back to 1880 to find another genuine long-shot winner: James A. Garfield in 1880, an Ohio congressman chosen to break a 36-ballot deadlock among three well-known favorites, former President Ulysses S. Grant, former House Speaker James G. Blaine and Treasury Secretary John Sherman.
In those pre-primary years, Garfield never faced a gauntlet of candidate debates and in fact wasn't really a candidate. At the Republican convention in Chicago, he placed Sherman's name in nomination and was handed it himself only after the early frontrunners Blaine and Sherman threw their votes to him to block Grant.
Most of the recent long shots, unlike Messrs. Carter and Garfield, have been political neophytes, which may have accounted for their lack of success. Some have played on their celebrity, Donald Trump being the latest to have tried and quickly flamed out. Others have put their personal bankrolls on the line, like publishing mogul Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000, and Texas tycoon Ross Perot in 1992, to little avail. Mr. Perot and his bankroll hung in through the election and won 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.
Mr. Cain, for all his recent fame as a pizza king, was hardly a celebrity when he took the plunge, nor has he thrown around his personal money as a calling card. To his credit, he at least came up with a catchy tax proposal that he calls "my 9-9-9 plan," replacing the existing confusing code with 9 percent individual, business and sales taxes.
Fellow Republican long shot and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman got a good laugh out of it at the debate last week at Dartmouth College, observing that when he had first heard of the plan he thought it was the price of a pizza.
But serious economists have been scrutinizing 9-9-9, and many have concluded it would be pure poison to the poor. Many at or below the poverty line don't pay income tax at all now, and as folks who occasionally find it necessary to eat occasionally, would be hard hit by any new sales taxes. Mr. Cain has been notably inexplicit on how his tax plan would work and has been short as well on offering details on other issues, including foreign policy, acknowledging that it's his short suit.
The debates to date have been good exposure for Mr. Cain's shtick of humor, old Southern manner and tellin' it like it is, whether he does or not. There will be more such debates and more demands from panelists that he get beyond the showmanship and gimmicks that have marked his candidacy so far.
Meanwhile, the polltakers will continue to do their thing, which at best is to offer a barometer of the political temperature at the time it is taken. Even Herman Cain, in identifying himself as the flavor of the month, seems to recognize that public opinion can be a transitory thing, especially in a political time of great uncertainty and turmoil in the country.
Jules Witcover is a synidacted columnist and a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.