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Could Sex-Scandal Coverage Be Doing Herman Cain a Favor?

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If there’s one thing people who follow politics are trained to believe, it’s that sex scandals bring politicians down. A sexual harassment scandal, doubly so. And an inartful response to a sexual harassment scandal, triply. So after Politico reported that Herman Cain had been accused of harassment by former employees who received settlements in exchange for silence, the buzz in the political press was that Herman Cain was done. Finally. Again.

They may be right. But it is worth noting that this is coming from the same political media that has been declaring that the Cain “bubble is about to pop” for weeks: after his answers on foreign policy and abortion, after his debate performances, after criticism of his 9-9-9 tax plan, and after the weirdest political ad of the Presidential race so far.

It is also worth noting that–though it’s early–there does not seem to be polling evidence of damage so far. Cain leads a Quinnipiac national poll taken partly after the story broke and a state poll in South Carolina taken entirely afterward. And it’s worth asking: it is at least possible that the scandal, and the resulting media attention, could help Cain more than it hurts him?

The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd sure doesn’t think so. In her column today, she says that “Cain was never going to be the nominee.” He’s too uninformed, too wacky, and now too untrustworthy in his response to the allegations. In her words: “The Herminator was just a raffish passing fancy, like Mr. Wickham, a place for Republicans to store their affections while they try to overcome their aversion to Mitt Romney’s Mr. Darcy.”

Yeah, because if there’s one thing Republican primary voters take their cues from, it’s New York Times columnists making Jane Austen analogies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking Cain to win the nomination. The scandal is still unfolding, and I have no idea how it will play out for him. But neither does Maureen Dowd, her certainty notwithstanding. What she’s doing in her column is what pundits have been doing with Cain repeatedly: Making a powerful argument as to why people who never would have voted for Cain in the first place are now definitely not going to vote for him.

If Dowd has a hard time taking Cain seriously, that’s her prerogative.* But open-minded journalism—especially if you are predicting the decisions of other voters—involves acknowledging that other people see the world differently from you. In this case, for instance: that many Cain voters and potential Cain voters see the “enemy” of the media as their friend; that his supporters may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the charges or decide that it’s not relevant to this election; and that, far from diminishing his stature, the constant coverage simply cements the impression that Cain is the frontrunner. (See Time’s Joe Klein for a more detailed look at why Cain might survive this scandal.)

The point of political reporting isn’t to help or to hurt a candidate, of course, and that shouldn’t be a consideration here. Political reporters should cover information that may be relevant to a voter’s decision. Sexual harassment is not “private sexual behavior”; if the charge is true, it’s an unwanted sexual advance on another person and an abuse of power, and voters have a right to take it into consideration. But it’s also possible they may decide to reject it from consideration, and those who analyze politics shouldn’t complacently assume how voters will think.

At the very least, before pundits again pronounce, “Surely no reasonable person will vote for this man now!” they should pause and remember how many times someone has declared that so far. (Maybe for this reason, my colleagues at Swampland are of several minds about whether the harassment story will take Cain down or not.) One of these days they may actually be right. If the Cain bubble eventually pops, though, it may not be because of the media’s scrutiny of him but in spite of it.

*Since we’re getting into election season here, the first of what will be many disclosures, because I believe in that kind of thing. I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and barring some unforeseen development will do so again next fall. I have no dog in the GOP fight, except to believe that journalists should try looking past the ends of their own noses when covering it.

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