There’s still just over a year to run until the next presidential election in the US, but only two months until the first event of the nominating calendar, the Iowa caucuses on January 3. In what already feels like a marathon Republican contest it’s too soon to say that the end is in sight, but at least the beginning is in sight.

The field is now down to nine. Of those, Gary Johnson and Rick Santorum are universally disregarded, and so to a slightly lesser extent – and for different reasons — are Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. (All four are interesting candidates who deserve more discussion, but this is not the time.) Michele Bachmann, once a top-tier contender, must now also be relegated to this group.

That leaves four, and for once the same four are in the top spots in both the polls and the betting market: front-runner Mitt Romney, Texas governor Rick Perry, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former pizza tycoon Herman Cain.

Not hard to pick the odd one out among those. And sure enough, America’s pundit class have been giving a lot of attention to Cain, even before he became embroiled in the weekend in a s-xual harassment story, dating from his time at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Is he a serious candidate, and could he really win the nomination?

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A firm “no” on both counts comes from Jon Chait at New York magazine, who argues that for Cain this is just a business opportunity:

“The question of whether the Herman Cain sexual harassment story will hurt his presidential campaign sort of misses the point that there is no Herman Cain presidential campaign …

“Cain is executing a business plan. It’s an excellent plan. The plan involves Cain raising his profile as a conservative personality, which he can monetize through motivational speaking, book sales, talk shows, and other media.”

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in this; I doubt that Cain took his chances at all seriously when he started out. But it doesn’t follow that a campaign can’t become serious or that a non-serious candidate can’t win. Maybe seriousness is not what the voters are looking for.

The paradoxical nature of Cain’s relationship with Republican voters — Nate Silver calls him “a 1-in-300,000 outlier” — is of course intimately tied up with his race. Here’s how Chait continues:

“Cain’s selling point is that he’s a black conservative who can capitalize on the sense of white racial victimization that has mushroomed during the Obama era. Accordingly, Cain assures conservatives that they are not racist, as proven by their support for him. Indeed, it is the liberals who are racist, as evidenced by their opposition to Cain.”

Hence the idea that Cain’s strong poll numbers are just a sort of placeholder for iconoclastic tea-party sentiment: unhappy with more moderate candidates, especially Romney, Republicans are expressing their feelings in the most outrageous way they know how, by saying they would even vote for a black man.

But again it simply doesn’t follow that such attitudes couldn’t propel Cain to the nomination. If you’re driven by anger to threaten something completely crazy, what better way to show how genuine you are than by actually carrying out the threat? The more Republican voters are told, in effect, “You can’t be serious!”, the more their attitudes might harden.

What’s more, GOP attitudes to race are more complex than liberals like Chait like to admit. The idea that Democrat policies have hurt blacks rather than helping them and it’s Republicans that really have their best interests at heart may have started out as a rationalisation of old-fashioned racism, but it has now taken on a life of its own and is sincerely held by many Republicans, who would take real pride in the idea of nominating a black candidate.

Whether the s-xual harassment charges will deflate the Cain balloon remains to be seen; they might, but it’s not the sort of issue that Republican voters tend to care about much. And Romney, despite his overwhelming favoritism in the markets, still seems unable to get his polling above about 25%.

When it comes down to it, I don’t really believe it either; I think the GOP electorate’s infatuation with Cain will go the same way as its earlier infatuation with Donald Trump. But don’t bet the house on it. In Silver’s words: “While I think the conventional wisdom is probably right about Mr Cain, it is irresponsible not to account for the distinct and practical possibility (…) that it might be wrong.”