5 factors that will determine whether Herman Cain story grows into a scandal

There are five factors that could determine whether reports of Herman Cain sexually harassing two women will grow into a scandal that halts his presidential aspirations, or be contained to a blip in the 24/7 news cycle. So far, Cain has benefited from a few of these factors, while the others remain undetermined.

Politico broke the news Sunday that two women who worked with Cain at the National Restaurant Association had accused him of inappropriate behavior in the late 1990s. Cain, who has been overtaking frontrunners in recent GOP presidential polls, issued a statement saying the "thinly-sourced allegations" are untrue. So, will this story become a scandal or will it quickly become old news? Here are the five factors to watch for as media coverage unfolds.

How credible is Cain?

When the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza spoke at the National Press Club today, he offered a clear and forceful denial.

"In all of my over 40 years of business experience, running businesses and corporations, I have never sexually harassed anyone,” Cain said. “While at the restaurant association I was accused of sexual harassment, falsely accused I might add. … And it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.”

Expect pundits to parse his every word -- and how it was delivered -- until this story explodes or implodes.

How quickly will information about the women emerge?

The women, who allegedly received financial settlements and agreed not to discuss the incidents, are not named in the Politico story. Will they or others come forward? Even if they remain unnamed, what else will we learn about their jobs and their lives during that time or since? Journalists may seek to vet their credibility, and what they learn will affect this story's staying power.

So far, nothing new has been confirmed about the women. However, during his NPC appearance, Cain did question their identities in the coverage. “We're not going to chase anonymous sources when there's no basis for accusation,” he said, drawing attention to the named sources “who would have known about this if, in fact, it had turned out to be a charge with some validity.”

What else don't we know?

Jonathan Alter presents several theories of "how the Washington scandal machine works" in a new Washington Monthly essay. Alter was writing about why Obama's administration hasn't been sucked into scandal, but several of these theories apply to the Cain allegations (or any possible scandal).

Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain campaigns in Talladega, Ala., Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

First, there is the pattern-of-behavior theory: "A critical variable in aggressive press coverage is whether a story is consistent with what we think we already know about a politician," Alter writes. Most voters know less about Herman Cain than they do about the other leading candidates. So, expect to see more details about his family surface in an effort to determine whether this information contradicts or is consistent with Cain's known behavior. Cain said today that Gloria, his wife of 43 years, will be appearing soon in a TV interview with him.

Who else will pursue this story?

Alter also presents the "news climate" theory, which suggests "two factors are especially important for a scandal to catch fire: first, an opposition party that views the president more negatively than normal; and second, a slow news period that allows scandals to emerge."

It seems unlikely that the opposition party in the White House will address these allegations, but how strenuously will Cain's fellow candidates defend him? So far, not very.

A perhaps more pressing factor will be whether other reporters investigate these allegations. As Alter writes, "Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive." Nevertheless, Politico will not have this story to itself as other journalists are now looking into this period in Cain’s past. NBC News has confirmed that one woman did receive a financial settlement from the National Restaurant Association after alleging misconduct by Cain. The more people who pursue this story, the longer its life.

Who speaks for Cain constituency?

Finally, a secondary scandal could start to spin if people who speak on Cain's behalf do so ineffectively.

In a recent piece on the Maynard Institute website, author Nadra Kareem Nittle said the media misunderstand Cain's appeal to voters. Part of the problem, she wrote, is that the pundits do not represent the people:

Danielle Belton, who covers politics on her blog, The Black Snob, and is a regular guest on the NPR show, “Tell Me More,” says that producers of news programs can show the diversity of the black vote by not featuring the same pundits over and over again. Donna Brazile has become the go-to black pundit representing Democrats, while Amy Holmes and Michael Steele fill the role for Republicans, Belton says. ...

Another issue is that political reporters consistently visit black churches to gauge black viewpoints on political issues. But some argue that church-going blacks are not a true representation of the community.  Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College, says the media must interview a broader segment of the black community. “You visit a black church if you want to find two groups of black people - people who are age 55 or above or married people,” says Johnson, also author of the new book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.

In addition, the church audience often excludes key demographic groups – young voters, single adults, those who are not religious and many others. So, why do reporters continue to visit churches to gauge the political temperature of blacks?

Who will represent Cain's supporters and how persuasive will they be? Already, Ann Coulter told Fox News that liberals are "terrified of strong, conservative, black men."

This news comes 20 years after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cain compared himself to Thomas today and has previously compared himself to the Supreme Court Associate Justice:

"They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate," Cain responded. "You're right. Clarence Thomas. And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through -- for the good of this country." Cain smiled broadly. "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching."

As in the Thomas case, allegations rest on this question: Who do you believe? Twenty years later, there is still discontent in this country over how that question was asked and answered. Time will tell whether the Cain chronicles will re-open those old wounds.


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