We've gotten used to being baffled by Herman Cain on an almost daily basis, but a new ad his campaign released last night really takes things to a new level. Coinciding with a new New York Times/CBS News poll that shows Cain still leading the GOP field 25 percent to 21 percent over Mitt Romney the 56-second ad is simply one of the strangest you'll ever see. It consists mostly of Cain's unknown, mustachioed chief of staff, Mark Block, staring straight into the camera and saying patriotic, optimistic things about the Cain candidacy. The real weirdness, though, takes place in the ad's final fifteen seconds. First, Block takes a long, slow drag of a cigarette as a painfully cheesy tea party anthem begins to play. Then we see a close-up of Cain turning to the camera and very slowly breaking into a smile. In the words of one YouTube commenter who we're not going to try to top, "I imagine Herman Cain is closing the curtains behind him at that shady motel, turning slowly, and making that creepy smile at a scared prostitute on the bed."
The whole ad is odd, but it's the cigarette that has most people talking. So let's think about why it might have been included. Here are five theories, in order of least plausible to most plausible.
5. Over at Salon, Steve Kornacki suggests that the "smoking shot ... could represent Cain’s defiant response to recent media scrutiny of his three-year run in the late 1990s as the head of the National Restaurant Association, during which time he aligned the lobbying group with the tobacco industry." Maybe! But that's a pretty obscure reference, and Cain doesn't tend to obsess about the media as much as some other GOP politicians.
4. The smoking scene was another way to signal that Cain is not your normal, focus-grouped, politically correct politician. His chief of staff will smoke a cigarette like he's a rogue cop in a film noir, and he doesn't care if the anti-tobacco groups or the liberal nanny-staters whine about it.
3. Herman Cain is trying to appeal to people like Mark Block. He's white, he has a mustache, he has a Midwestern accent, and yes, he smokes cigarettes. In short, he looks and sounds like someone from the SNL Da Bears sketches. And he believes in Herman Cain. Come on in, working class Republicans the water's fine!
2. The smoking scene guaranteed that the ad would become viral. The Cain campaign knew that the mainstream media would throw a hissy fit over the inclusion of cigarette in a campaign ad, and they were 100 percent correct! Look we're talking about it right now!
1. All of the previous theories assume that the Cain campaign by which we mean Cain, Block, and, we don't know, maybe that random accountant in Cleveland that helped Cain craft the 9-9-9 plan? made conscious, deliberate decisions about the content of the ad. But maybe that's giving them too much credit. Cain hadn't even thought about his position on abortion until a few days ago how hard could he have thought about the cigarette scene in his web ad? He probably just thought it looked cool.
Update: The Smoking Man, Mark Block, told Fox News this afternoon that there was no deeper meaning to the smoking scene (ding ,ding, ding, Theory Number One!):
“The message behind the ad was to are supporters that we’re on a roll. We’re excited about what’s happening. There was no subliminal message. In fact, I personally would encourage people not to smoke. It’s just that I’m a smoker. A lot of the people on the staff said ‘Just let Block be Block."
However, he soon added:
“I tell you, you walk into a veteran’s bar in Iowa and they’re sitting around smoking and you know we are resonating with them. I’m not the only one that smokes in America for God’s sake."
Ding, ding, ding, Theory Number Three?