Meanwhile, dozens, maybe hundreds of GOP delegates who came to Orlando intending to support Perry were having second thoughts. They’d all been in the room for the Fox News-Google debate on Thursday night and were dismayed by Perry’s performance. Actually, more than dismayed — some were insulted by Perry’s accusation that people who don’t support his immigration positions are heartless. Still, they didn’t immediately drop the Texas governor, did not immediately say, “That’s it — I’m outta here.” Rather, in the 40 hours after the end of the debate, their minds were a little more open than they had been before. And most were specifically a little more open to Cain, who impressed them during the debate and had made a number of impromptu appearances around the hotels adjacent to the Orange County Convention Center.
But even on Saturday, Perry might still have recovered some support with an inspiring speech before the voting. Instead, he headed off to Michigan, and it was Cain who delivered a barn-burner that brought at least seven standing ovations from the delegates. Wavering Perry delegates became Cain voters.
“I couldn’t make up my mind,” said Thelma, from Panama City, after the vote. “It was the speech that made the hair stand up on my arms. It wasn’t a tingle down my leg — it was an emotional excitement that this man knows how to get our country out of trouble.”
“I went in with this on my shirt,” said Melissa from Panama City, pointing to her PERRY sticker. “And I voted for Cain.”
“I liked Cain, but I wasn’t sure he could win,” said Zena, from Washington County. “But after I heard this, I thought it doesn’t matter if he wins or not — I am for this man. He was awesome.”
Multiply Thelma, Melissa, and Zena a few hundred times and you have what happened inside the convention hall. As he walked around the enormous room, Scott Plakon began to suspect that something was up. “Supporters of the other camps, some who had buttons on, came up to me and said, ‘I voted for your guy,'” Plakon says. In the end, it wasn’t even close.
What had happened? In the days before the vote, nearly all the delegates who voted for Cain either said or heard someone else say this: “I love Herman Cain, but he can’t get elected.” The assumption that Cain can’t win the Republican nomination was a serious obstacle in their minds. But at some point late Friday and early Saturday, the delegates overcame that obstacle. Some concluded that since they had heard so many people speak well of Cain, he could indeed win, if everyone who liked him would actually vote for him. Others remained skeptical of Cain’s ultimate chances but decided to send the message that they would choose candidates based on conservative principles, and not on perceived electability.
Once the delegates got over the can’t-get-elected hurdle, a close contest became a landslide for Herman Cain.
One other factor should not be underestimated. Yes, the delegates liked what Cain had to say. But how he said it was just as important. With his deep, booming voice and a style that any motivational speaker would envy, Cain can give a rousing speech, and he gave several of them during four days in Orlando. No other candidate, frontrunner or back of the pack, could match him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his power as an orator sealed the deal for hundreds of delegates. They believed Cain was speaking to them from the heart, and they were carried away by it. As with the Democratic primary contests of 2007 and 2008, never underestimate the power of a stirring speech.
Michele Bachmann rose and fell. Rick Perry rose and is falling. Will Herman Cain suffer the same fate?
In the end there can be only one.