The Real Story Why Cain Won the FL Straw Poll, and What the Frontrunners Can Learn From It (Update: Romney Camp Responds)

Cain was the only candidate who stuck around to speak Friday night to a large room packed with delegates attending CPAC’s “Reagan Reception.” (No Reagan connection in sight, but these are Republicans and Reagan is their modern-day George Washington.)

There, Cain mesmerized the crowd with what I call a cross between a Tony Robbins-style motivational speech and a Sunday morning church sermon in a slow, deep, voice that sounded like the movie voice of God.

Furthermore, Cain was always present when the other frontrunners had either left the state (Romney especially) or were otherwise too busy or too uppity to socialize freely with “the folks.”

Cain showed he cared enough to send his very best -- himself.

(Apologies for that old Hallmark ad line.)

One Romney-supporting delegate, who did not vote for Romney, told me why he changed his vote, saying: “Cain made us feel important” and “Romney ignored us.”

Then came the final curtain call right before the straw poll votes were to be cast.

All the candidates were given 15 minutes to appear on stage and make their case. Ron Paul sent a surrogate (snore). But Herman Cain gave such a rousing speech -- bringing the delegates to their feet (shades of Obama 2008 minus the fainting) -- that Rick Santorum, who had the misfortune of following Cain on the stage, said in jest that he was going to fire the staffer who decided that order of appearance.

Newt spoke next (more snores), and Huntsman sent his lovely wife and family as surrogates, but Cain’s performance was still echoing in the minds of all the delegates.

Up next was Rick Perry, who also sent a surrogate, but many delegates decided that was a good time to take a break and exit the room. Not a good sign for Perry.  And then it was suddenly announced it was time to vote. What? No Mitt Romney or Mitt Romney surrogate? Delegates were flabbergasted. “Mitt dissed us” and “He will pay for this” were the prevailing conversations.

So, instead of Santorum joking about firing a staffer for having to follow Herman Cain, Romney really needs to fire the staffer who advised him not to at least send a surrogate or even show a video like Huntsman. Those lost 15 minutes cost Romney dearly. His campaign committed the cardinal sin of ignoring activists who crave attention and want you to show them the love in exchange for their support.

It turns out Romney was in Michigan. He left shortly after his early Friday morning CPAC speech to attend a Republican gathering with their own straw poll. In Michigan, Romney took 51% of the vote, to Perry’s 17% and Herman Cain’s 9%.

It all goes to show that Woody Allen is right. When it comes to life and politics, 80% of success is just showing up.

Several delegates told me about a subliminal message they hoped to send the nation with their vote for Herman Cain, who just happens to be an African American conservative. They wanted their vote to prove that the GOP and the Tea Party are not racist (take that Morgan Freeman and Black Caucus) but instead are willing to embrace a man of color whose personal story and political philosophy they wholeheartedly support.

There are several lessons to be learned from Herman Cain’s victory at the Florida straw poll. First and foremost, Florida Republican activists want to be courted. This vote also shows “Florida has attitude,” as one delegate said to me immediately after the results were announced.

Frontrunners like Romney and Perry need to take a page out of Herman Cain’s playbook and be prepared to spend a great deal of time showing Florida the love and taming that “attitude.”

This is because delegates at Presidency 5 and other Florida Republicans not in attendance are very proud of the fact that the road to the national nomination runs through the Florida 2012 primary and, subsequently, they are going to make all the frontrunners pay a steep toll in time and attention.

Update: The Romney campaign issued the following statement on June 9, 2011. The campaign has asked PJM to post this statement again as it relates to

Myra Adams' piece about the Florida straw poll.

"Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it's in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else. We respect the straw poll process.  In the last presidential campaign we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them.  This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses. We look forward to bringing Mitt Romney's strong pro-jobs message to every part of the country." - Matt Rhoades, campaign manager