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The Harassment Bump

[Guest post by Molly Redden]

All week long, since the news broke that Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain had settled two sexual harassment allegations in the ‘90s, pundits have been falling over themselves to analyze the fallout. Did Cain botch his initial response? Was that a symptom of poor advisers? Did he find an effective response? Could he recover? Would voters care about the news?

But implicit in all of this scrutiny is another fascinating revelation—namely, that it’s now the conventional wisdom that Cain is running for president at all.

That wasn’t even the case as recently as two weeks ago. Throughout the month of October, the prevailing narrative about Cain’s campaign, with its skeletal staff, was that it might be no more than a glorified book tour. Cain was, after all, taking much of that month off from campaigning for the White House to promote his autobiography, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, prompting headlines like, “Is Herman Cain running campaign or book tour?” and sparking several investigations of his sincerity. (Just four days before the Politico story broke, Time had found that he had no tangible organization in Iowa to speak of with the caucus only about two months away.) It was a story Cain just couldn’t shake, even after sitting atop or near the top of the Republican primary polls for the back half of the month.

Maybe it’s because there’s a hard-and-fast script reporters like to follow when a political figure is accused of sexual misconduct—the feverish need to know whether allegations are true, and what the detriment will be to that candidate/senator/Supreme Court nominee/Tweeting congressperson—but Cain’s possible misdeeds have done him the immense favor of disappearing any questions of whether his campaign is just a naked attempt to build a brand name. The incessant coverage of the scandal has largely ignored the fact that there wasn’t much of a Cain campaign to damage in the first place.

That’s despite a huge backlog of evidence suggesting Cain’s campaign is—or at least was—less-than-serious. The same day the allegations surfaced in Politico, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Sentinel Journal reported that his campaign may have violated federal campaign and tax laws, having been launched almost entirely on undisclosed private cash. News organizations that have covered this item have given it far less bandwidth and promotion than updates on Cain’s alleged sexual harassment. In October, we learned that Cain has spent $100,000 of donors’ money to purchase copies of his autobiography and his motivational pamphlets from his own privately-owned company. Cain has also taken in a quarter-of-a-million dollars in speaking fees this year. His 9-9-9 tax reform plan, the closest thing he has to a fleshed-out policy proposal (outside of a blanket ban on “extremist Muslims” in his cabinet), was authored by a man with bachelor’s in accounting and no public economic policy experience to speak of. And as I wrote on Monday, even Cain’s press conference in response to the allegations had the air of a celebrity performing damage control, not a politician seeking to make amends.

Since Sunday, however, most coverage of Cain’s campaign has eschewed questions of its legitimacy. (So have Republican voters, it seems: between Sunday and Thursday, Cain raised $1 million in donations, compared to the $2.5 million he’d raised in the entire second quarter of the race.) This leaves us with a troubling question. Why, after weeks of revelations about Cain’s ineptitude, was the news that he had settled sexual harassment charges with at least two female employees the thing that made his run for the presidency an unquestionably legitimate one?