Cain grew up in Georgia and graduated from Morehouse College in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. Cain pursued graduate studies at Purdue University and graduated with a Master of Science in Computer Science in 1971, while also working full-time for the U.S. Department of the Navy. In 1977, he joined Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis where he later became vice president. During the 1980s, his success as a business executive at Burger King prompted Pillsbury Company to appoint him as chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, in which capacity he served from 1986 to 1996.
Cain was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Omaha Branch from 1989 to 1991. He was deputy chairman, from 1992 to 1994, and chairman, from 1995 to 1996, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. In 1995, Cain was appointed by Newt Gingrich to the Kemp Commission, and was a senior economic adviser to the Bob Dole presidential campaign. Cain became the CEO of the National Restaurant Association, in which he served as president and CEO from 1996 to 1999. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, Cain publicly opposed the Clinton health care plan of 1993, about which he questioned the president at a town hall meeting. Cain has served as a member of the board of directors of several companies, including Aquila, Inc., Nabisco, Whirlpool, Reader's Digest, and AGCO.
In May 2011 Cain announced his presidential candidacy. By the fall, his proposed 9–9–9 tax plan and debating performances had made him the Republican front-runner and he briefly led President Obama in the polls. In November, however, his campaign struggled with allegations of sexual misconduct—all denied by Cain—and he announced its suspension on December 3. At the end of 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that, of the Republican candidates, "Herman Cain was the most covered candidate" during the year. On May 15, 2012, Cain endorsed Mitt Romney.
Herman Cain was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Lenora (Davis) Cain, a cleaning woman and domestic worker, and Luther Cain Jr., who was raised on a farm and worked as a barber and janitor, as well as a chauffeur for The Coca-Cola Company president Robert W. Woodruff. Cain has said that as he was growing up, his family was "poor but happy." Cain related that his mother taught him about her belief that "success was not a function of what you start out with materially, but what you start out with spiritually." His father worked three jobs to own his own home—something he achieved during Cain’s childhood—and to see his two sons graduate.
Cain grew up on the west side of Atlanta, Georgia, attending school and the Rev. Cameron M. Alexander's Antioch Baptist Church North in the neighborhood now known as The Bluff. Eventually Cain's father saved enough money and the family moved to a modest brick home on Albert Street in the Collier Heights neighborhood. He attended Archer (public) High School, graduating in 1963.
Cain married Gloria Cain (née Etchison), of Atlanta, soon after her graduation from Morris Brown College in 1968. Gloria Cain is a homemaker, with experience as a teacher and a librarian. The couple have two children and three grandchildren.
In 2006 Cain was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in his colon and metastases to his liver and given a 30 percent chance of survival. Cain underwent surgery and chemotherapy following the diagnosis, and has since reported that he is in remission.
Disclosures filed during his campaign in 2011 categorized Cain’s wealth at that time as being between $2.9 and $6.6 million, with Cain’s combined income for both 2010 and 2011 being between $1.1 and $2.1 million.
Cain also serves as an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, which he joined at the age of 10. The church is part of the National Baptist Convention and is politically liberal and theologically conservative; the church's senior pastor, Rev. Cameron M. Alexander, does not share Cain’s political philosophy.
Cain received a master of science in computer science from Purdue University in 1971 while he also worked full-time as a ballistics analyst for the U.S. Department of the Navy as a civilian.
After completing his master's degree from Purdue, Cain left the Department of the Navy and began working for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta as a computer systems analyst. In 1977, he moved to Minneapolis to join Pillsbury, soon becoming director of business analysis in its restaurant and foods group in 1978.
At age 36 Cain was assigned in the 1980s to analyze and manage 400 Burger King stores in the Philadelphia area. At the time, Burger King was a Pillsbury subsidiary. Under Cain, his region posted strong improvement in three years. According to a 1987 account in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pillsbury's then-president Win Wallin said, "He was an excellent bet. Herman always seemed to have his act together." At Burger King, Cain "established the BEAMER program, which taught our employees, mostly teenagers, how to make our patrons smile" by smiling themselves. It was a success: "Within three months of the program's initiation, the sales trend was moving steadily higher."
Cain's success at Burger King prompted Pillsbury to appoint him president and CEO of another subsidiary, Godfather's Pizza. On his arrival on April 1, 1986, Cain told employees, “I’m Herman Cain and this ain’t no April Fool’s joke. We are not dead. Our objective is to prove to Pillsbury and everyone else that we will survive.” Godfather's Pizza was performing poorly, having slipped in ranks of pizza chains from third in 1985 to fifth in 1988. Under Cain’s leadership, Godfather's closed approximately 200 restaurants and eliminated several thousand jobs, and by doing so returned to profitability. In a leveraged buyout in 1988, Cain, executive vice president and COO Ronald B. Gartlan, and a group of investors bought Godfather’s from Pillsbury.
Cain served as chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Omaha Branch from January 1, 1989, to December 31, 1991. He became a member of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in 1992. He served as deputy chairman from January 1, 1992, to December 31, 1994, and then as its chairman until August 19, 1996, when he resigned to become active in national politics.
Cain left Godfather’s Pizza in 1996 and moved to Washington, D.C. From 1996 to 1999 he served as CEO of the National Restaurant Association, a trade group and lobbying organization for the restaurant industry, on whose board of directors he had previously served. Cain’s lobbying work for the association led to a number of connections to Republican lawmakers and politicians. Under Cain's leadership, the Association lobbied against increases to the minimum wage, mandatory health care benefits, regulations against smoking, and lowering the blood alcohol limit that determines whether one is driving under the influence.
Cain was on the board of directors of several companies, including Aquila, Inc., Nabisco, Whirlpool, Reader's Digest, and AGCO, Inc.
After Cain’s term with the restaurant advocacy group ended in 1999, he returned to Omaha for about a year, then moved to his hometown of Atlanta in 2000.
Cain writes a syndicated op-ed column, which is distributed by the North Star Writers Group.
Cain appeared in the 2009 documentary An Inconvenient Tax. From 2008, until February 2011, Cain hosted The Herman Cain Show on Atlanta talk radio station WSB. On January 19, 2012, Cain began working for WSB again by providing daily commentaries, while occasionally filling in for Erick Erickson and Neal Boortz.
On October 1, 2012, Cain began writing weekly online columns for the media organization Newsmax, in a series titled “9-9-9 To Save America.”
Cain took over Boortz's radio talk show on January 21, 2013, upon Boortz’s retirement. The program is heard weekdays on WSB from 9 a.m. to Noon. It is also syndicated for airing on other radio stations across the nation on the Westwood One Radio Network; the show was dropped from Westwood One in December 2016 in favor of The Chris Plante Show, continuing to air on a more limited syndication network through WSB's owner, Cox Radio.
On February 15, 2013, Fox News Channel announced Cain would join the network as a contributor.
Cain received the 1996 Horatio Alger Award and has received honorary degrees from Creighton University, Johnson & Wales University, Morehouse College, University of Nebraska, New York City Technical College, Purdue University, Suffolk University, and Tougaloo College.
Because of his Christian ethic applied to his business acumen, Cain was profiled in The Entrepreneur's Creed, written by Mike Hamel and published by Broadman & Holman, which spotlighted notable executives, including Jerry Colangelo (former owner of the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks). In the book, Cain is referred to as "the Colin Powell of American capitalism," according to former presidential candidate and football star, Jack Kemp. Kemp stated that Cain's "conquests won't be counted in terms of countries liberated or lives saved, but in those things that make life worth living — expanding opportunity, creating jobs and broadening horizons, not just for those he knows, but through his example, for those he'll never meet." Hamel notes that such a claim is remarkable, given Cain's father was a chauffeur for the CEO of Coca-Cola.
Cain publicly opposed the Clinton health care plan of 1993. As president-elect of the National Restaurant Association, he challenged Bill Clinton on the costs of the employer mandate contained within the bill and criticized its effect on small businesses. Bob Cohn of Newsweek described Cain as one of the primary opponents of the plan:
The Clintons would later blame "Harry and Louise," the fictional couple in the ads aired by the insurance industry, for undermining health reform. But the real saboteurs are named Herman and John. Herman Cain is the president of Godfather's Pizza and president-elect of the National Restaurant Association. An articulate entrepreneur, Cain transformed the debate when he challenged Clinton at a town meeting in Kansas City, Missouri. Cain asked the president what he was supposed to say to the workers he would have to lay off because of the cost of the "employer mandate". Clinton responded that there would be plenty of subsidies for small businessmen, but Cain persisted. "Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate," he told the president. "In the competitive marketplace it simply doesn't work that way."
Joshua Green of The Atlantic has called Cain's exchange with Clinton his "auspicious debut on the national political stage".
Conservative politician and former housing secretary Jack Kemp was so impressed with Cain's performance that he chartered a plane to Nebraska to meet Cain after the debate. Cain credits Kemp with his becoming interested in politics.
Cain was a senior economic adviser to the Bob Dole presidential campaign in 1996.
Cain briefly ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000; he says it was more about making political statements than winning the nomination. "George W. Bush was the chosen one, he had the campaign DNA that followers look for." However, Cain went on to state, "I believe that I had a better message and I believe that I was the better messenger." After ending his own campaign, however, he endorsed Steve Forbes.
In 2004 Cain ran for the U.S. Senate in Georgia and did not win in the primaries. He was pursuing the seat that came open with the retirement of Democrat Zell Miller. Cain sought the Republican nomination, facing congressmen Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins in the primary. Collins tried to paint Cain as a moderate, citing Cain's support for affirmative action programs, while Cain argued that he was a conservative, noting that he opposed the legality of abortion except when the mother's life is threatened. Cain finished second in the primary with 26.2% of the vote, ahead of Collins, who won 20.6%, but because Isakson won 53.2% of the vote, Isakson was able to avoid a runoff.
Starting in 2005, Cain worked for the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) alongside Mark Block. Block would later become campaign manager for Cain's 2012 presidential run and would be joined in Cain's campaign by several other AFP employees. Cain continued to receive honorariums for speaking at AFP events until he announced his campaign for the Republican nomination. Cain's senior economic advisor during his 2012 presidential campaign, Rich Lowrie, who helped devise Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, had served on the AFP board. In 2006, Cain voiced several radio ads encouraging people of color to vote Republican; the ads were funded by a group called America's PAC and its founder J. Patrick Rooney.
In 2010, "Cain addressed more than 40 Tea Party rallies, hit all the early presidential states, and became a YouTube sensation." On September 24, 2010, Cain announced that he was considering a run for president in 2012 on the Republican Party ticket. In December, Cain was the "surprise choice" for 2012 GOP nominee in a RedState.com reader poll. Cain announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee on January 12, 2011, and officially announced his candidacy on May 21 in Atlanta.
A popular speaker, Cain's addresses to conservative groups were well received, and in late September and early October 2011, Cain won the straw polls of the Florida Republican Party, TeaCon, and the National Federation of Republican Women's Convention. "My focus groups have consistently picked Herman Cain as the most likeable candidate in the debates", says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "Don't underestimate the power of likability, even in a Republican primary. The more likeable the candidate, the greater the electoral potential."
In July 2011, an advisor suggested that his campaign's tax policy plan be called "the Optimal Tax", but Cain rejected the name, saying "we're just going to call it what it is: 9–9–9 Plan". The plan would replace the current tax code with a 9-percent business transactions tax, a 9-percent personal income tax, and a 9-percent federal sales tax. During a debate on October 12, Cain said his plan "expands the base", arguing that "when you expand the base, we can arrive at the lowest possible rate, which is 9-9-9". An analysis released to Bloomberg News by the campaign claimed that the rate for each of the three taxes could in fact be as low as 7.3%, but "poverty grants" – which Cain has described as a lower rate in targeted "empowerment zones" – necessitated a national rate of 9%. Paul Krugman has criticized the plan, saying it shifts much of the current tax burden from the rich to the poor. Arthur Laffer, Lawrence Kudlow, the Club for Growth, and Congressman Paul Ryan have spoken favorably of "9-9-9". On October 21, Cain told a crowd in Detroit that the plan would be 9-0-9 for the poor, saying that "if you are at or below the poverty level ... then you don't pay that middle 9 on your income". Cain's 9-9-9 plan attracted skepticism from his fellow candidates at numerous Republican debates.
In late October 2011, Politico reported that Cain had been accused by two women of sexual harassment and misconduct during his time as CEO of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s. Harassment accusations were later made by two additional women. Cain acknowledged that the restaurant organization made financial settlements to the complainants. Two of the four women came forward publicly: Sharon Bialek and Karen Kraushaar.
On November 28, 2011, Cain asserted that a woman named Ginger White would be claiming to have had an affair with him, and that the allegation was not true. An interview with White was aired an hour later on Fox 5 in Atlanta. In the interview, White said the affair lasted 13 years and ended right before Cain announced his presidential campaign. On November 30, 2011, Herman Cain denounced allegations of sexual harassment and adultery as "character assassination" during an event in Dayton, Ohio.
On December 3, 2011, Cain announced he was "suspending" his campaign for the presidency following allegations of sexual harassment and adultery, which he denied, but were widely considered responsible for the sharp drop in his poll numbers.
On January 4, 2012, Cain announced the "Cain's Solutions Revolution". Cain's stated goal was to get commitments from members of Congress to support the 9-9-9 Plan before the 2012 elections. Cain stated that he started a new movement because the "biggest comment I got when I ended my candidacy was to keep 9-9-9 alive. That's what this is about, and I'm going to keep it alive with what I'm calling Cain's Solutions Revolution." In order to promote this movement, Cain was using both a bus tour and a new website. New York magazine stated, "It's Cain's earnest effort to keep 9-9-9 alive and focus on solutions." On January 20, 2012, Cain spoke at Stephen Colbert's "Rock Me Like a Herman Cain: South Cain-Olina Primary Rally". The Huffington Post reported the crowd size was between 3,000 and 5,000 people. It had been called "the largest campaign rally so far during this GOP presidential primary season", and "the biggest political rally of the primary season".
For President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, the Tea Party Express chose Cain to give its second annual response. After Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels gave the official GOP response, Cain delivered his speech at the National Press Club. The speech was streamed live on the Tea Party Express website. Cain referred to Obama's address as a "hodgepodge of liberal ideas", adding that there were "no big ideas that would impact job growth" and "no big ideas that would stimulate economic growth in this country".
After Barack Obama's reelection in 2012, Herman Cain told Bryan Fischer that the Republican Party no longer represented the interests of conservatives in the United States and that it didn't have "the ability to rebrand itself", so a third party, "not Ron Paul and the Ron Paulites" but "a legitimate third party", would be needed to replace it.