In 1982, nearing 40, he was a vice president at Pillsbury, but felt stuck. So he joined the management-training program at Burger King, a Pillsbury subsidiary, which began with a stint flipping patties (a marked contrast with President Donald Trump, who enjoys fast food but would never be caught dead producing it). That was a short-time gig; Cain shot up through the ranks at Burger King, and in 1986 was dispatched to lead Godfather’s Pizza, a failing Omaha, Nebraska–based subsidiary of Pillsbury. When the turnaround was slower than than the parent company wanted, Cain cobbled together an ownership group to buy Godfather’s.
Cain was an energetic leader, and not one who took himself too seriously. An indelible clip shows Cain, clad in a white choir robe and in fine singing fettle, belting a parody of John Lennon’s “Imagine” at an Omaha banquet: “Imagine there’s no pizza … I couldn’t if I tried.” Cain also served on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and its Omaha branch, winning praise.
His politics emerged slowly. He became a Republican, he later said, after overhearing a Black man say, “Black Republicans? There’s no such thing.” Cain promptly registered with the GOP. The attraction was mutual. With his bootstrap backstory and his insistence on color blindness despite his own Black heritage (“It’s not about color,” he said. “It’s going to be about the content of your ideas.”), Cain appealed to a Republican Party focused on individualism and opposed to affirmative action and other race-based policies.
Cain won more conservative fans in 1994, when he tore into President Bill Clinton and his health-care proposal at a nationally televised town hall, saying he’d have to lay off workers if it passed. The law sank; Cain’s political fortunes rose. In 1996, he left Godfather’s to lead the National Restaurant Association, a powerful and traditionally conservative lobbying organization in Washington.
Throughout the 2000s, Cain dabbled in politics, both as an activist and sometimes candidate, but his break came with the Tea Party in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Racial resentment was at the center of much of the Tea Party movement, and Cain—a successful, wealthy conservative who was Black and rejected claims of racism from his compatriots—became both a popular leader and a useful fig leaf.
In 2011, Cain decided to run for president, fulfilling a dream he’d floated as early as 1996. The Republican field was large and fractious, and although Mitt Romney was the early favorite, a series of alternative candidates rose in the polls: first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry; later came Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Squarely in the middle, Cain rose in the polls, cresting atop the race with more than a quarter of the vote in RealClearPolitics’ average, in November 2011.