Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain once led a pizza empire but has never held office, making him the subject of a lot of snack food jokes but no serious coverage. But The New York Times' Nate Silver argues that poll numbers suggest Cain could be a legitimate candidate: he got 8 percent of GOP voters' support in Gallup's latest poll, putting him in fifth place behind Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and New Gingrich. But all of those contenders are a lot more famous than Cain. And Silver argues that makes Cain's showing even more impressive because a lot of people who've heard of Cain seem to like him.

Right now, only one third of Republican voters have heard of Cain. But among this group, 24 percent pick him as their first choice for the nomination. No other candidate performs that well--just 20 percent of the people who've heard of Romney pick him as their No. 1. For Palin, that number is 16 percent; Pawlenty, 13 percent. And Silver explains why this is important:

[T]his measure--a candidate's polling adjusted for name recognition--has a reasonably good track record. It would have identified winners like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry relatively early in the process, as well as Bill Clinton by the time he officially entered the race in November 1991. ...

The argument that you're likely to hear elsewhere is that candidates without an electoral track record haven't won the nomination in the modern (post-1972) primary era. But it's a small sample size, and some or another precedent is broken in nearly every election cycle.

The Democratic National Committee, at least, no longer thinks Cain is a joke. As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank notes, the DNC has begun issuing "rapid response" memos in response to Cain's statements.

Update: Public Policy Polling released results from Ohio Friday morning, and found Cain to be tied for third with Gingrich among Republican voters, with 12 percent, behind Romney and Palin.