Does Herman Cain really have a chance?

Cain speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition event on March 7, 2011 in Waukee, Iowa. Cain was among several potential presidential candidates who spoke to hundreds of activists at the event.
Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images

Polls suggest that Herman Cain is one of the front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination. So why is it that most political insiders privately dismiss his chances?

The one-word answer: Money.

The conventional wisdom in Washington - and it is grounded in recent history - is that you can't win a presidential election without wealthy donors behind you. Those donors provide the money for a candidate to hire field staff and build a campaign organization in key early states, run advertisements to boost name recognition and create contrasts with rivals, and pay for the many costs (travel, security) of running for president. And without some big donors getting on board, other prospective donors are less likely to contribute because they fear that the candidate may not be able to stay in the race for the long haul.

The flip side is also true. Donors give to candidates with lots of money.

Mitt Romney raised $14.2 million between July and September, and has $14.7 million in cash on hand; Rick Perry raised $12.3 million in the same period and has 15.1 million on hand. Perry, the Texas governor, has relied largely on the energy companies and other corporations that make up his donor network in Texas, while Romney has shown himself to be Wall Street's preferred candidate, taking in significant donations from employees of large financial firms.

The two men far outpace the rest of the GOP field. That includes Cain, who lacks any sort of real fund-raising network: He raised just $2.8 million in the summer fund-raising period (including a $175,000 personal loan from the candidate), and has just $1.3 million on hand.

While Perry and Romney have built up organizations in early states like New Hampshire and Iowa that will help them get out the vote, Cain has virtually no organization in place. He has started adding staff - he's up to a few dozen people - but he has nowhere near the campaign infrastructure of Perry and Romney. Indeed, Cain has seen more than his fair share of campaign turmoil, losing his communications director at the start of October, his top New Hamsphire staff in June and his top Iowa staff in July.

Cain, whose only serious bid for public office had been a failed 2004 bid for the GOP Senate nomination against Georgia's Johnny Isaakson, is trying to turn the shoestring, unorthdox nature of his campaign into a strength, insisting last week that "message is more important than money." Certainly, the simplicity of his message - most notably, of course, in the form of his "9-9-9" plan - has captured primary voters' attention.

But most Republican insiders believe that Cain's personal magnetism and his "9-9-9" plan - which has come under significant fire as Cain has risen in the polls - isn't enough to keep Cain from ultimately ending up like the other recent candidates who have surged, and then flamed out, as the anybody-but-Romney choice.

The candidate himself isn't helping. Just as he shot to the top of the polls, Cain embarked on a book tour that kept him away from the key early states; this week he went to Tennessee, which doesn't hold a primary until March. Most of Cain's rivals, meanwhile, have been cross-crossing the key early voting states. Cain's lack of focus on early states has many political watchers wondering just how serious he is about trying to win the nomination.

And Cain's willingness to proclaim his lack of knowledge about a range of issues - he boasted earlier this month that "when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say you know, I don't know" - has fed concerns that he simply lacks the range of knowledge to be a successful general election candidate, and, potentially, a successful president. He's made a number of claims that he has later dismissed as jokes or exaggerations, including that he would only sign bills that are three pages or less and that he wants a fence on the Mexico-U.S. border that would electrocute people to death.

In accordance with his increased standing in opinion polls, Cain has been making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows closely watched by political insiders and potential donors. He's gotten decidedly mixed reviews for performances like the one he put in on "Meet the Press" Sunday, where Cain acknowledged that his tax plan would increase taxes on some Americans and said he is "not familiar with the neoconservative movement."

A candidate who lacks the support of the moneyed conservative establishment can certainly make a splash in a GOP primary fight - just look at Mike Huckabee, who was able to win the Iowa caucuses in 2008. But lacking the money necessary to compete with flusher rivals like Romney and John McCain, Huckabee eventually faded away despite considerable personal magnetism and the support of many social conservatives.

With most of the traditional big GOP donors embracing Romney in the wake of Chris Christie's decision to sit out the 2012 race and endorse the former Massachusetts governor, the uncommitted money has largely dried up. Which means that even if Cain can win the caucuses, he'll have a hard time using the victory to raise the money he needs for a long slog against Romney and Perry. Cain does have something resembling a network in the form of the Koch brothers-linked Americans for Prosperity, which has provided a degree of ideological and structural support, but it's not clear that it could be harnessed to keep Cain in his rivals' financial orbit.

Cain chief political strategist and campaign manager Mark Block told Roll Call earlier this month that the Cain campaign is "not running a two-state strategy," opting instead to embrace "this whole new paradigm out there of this grass-roots movement." But from a practical perspective, it's not clear how the campaign can transcend the traditional rules that have made for successful campaigns in the past.

Cain is essentially throwing out the playbook in favor of a seat-of-the-pants, cash-poor, lightly staffed operation that is leaving political insiders scratching their heads. If Cain is able to win the nomination, he'll not only shock the political establishment, he'll forever alter the way the political game is played. He might even shock himself.