Two new national polls released today. Both show Herman Cain in the lead over Mitt Romney, Cain taking the lead is interesting enough in itself, though his weaknesses as a candidate make me confident that he won't be the nominee. Of course, with the current state of the Republican Party, one can never be too sure.
The truly fascinating and important result come from comparing the new NBC poll with the previous one, conducted at the end of August. At that point, Rick Perry was in the lead with 38%, followed by Romney with 23%. Cain was tied for 5th at 5%. In the new poll, Perry's support has fallen to 16%, Romney is stuck at 23%, and Cain surged to 27%. His 22% rise perfectly mirrors Perry's 22% fall. Essentially, a fifth of the electorate decided to switch horses, and, statistically speaking, none of them decided to switch to Romney!
This is yet more support for the idea that most Republican voters just don't want to vote for the most electable (i.e., least conservative) of the major candidates. Romney's path to the nomination is to keep as many conservative candidates in the race to split the anti-Romney vote, allowing his 20-some percent to carry the day. Once he racks up wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, he'll ride the inevitability/electability wave to the nomination. If 2 or 3 out of Perry/Cain/Bachmann/Gingrich drop out of the race before Iowa, one of the survivors might be strong enough to overcome Romney. But if everyone stays in and stays relatively even, Romney will cruise to the nomination.
This dynamic helps explain Romney's approach in last night's debate to Michele Bachmann. A feature of the debate was that each candidate was allowed to ask one question to another candidate. Most used this as an opportunity to try to nail Romney. When it was Romney's turn, he chose to lob a softball to Bachmann, who launched into an excerpt from her standard stump speech. Romney needs Bachmann, the weakest of the 2nd tier candidates, to stay competitive to draw support from other conservatives, so he used his question to help her out.
It will be very interesting in the weeks before Iowa (less than 3 months away) to see if there's pressure on conservative candidates to get out of the race. We know Ron Paul's in it til the convention, but will any of the others bow out to keep the more-moderate Romney from being the nominee?