Carly Fiorina is the most credible female candidate yet to run for the Republican Presidential nomination. In the wake of Fiorina’s decision to drop out of the race last week, it’s worth considering why her campaign collapsed.
1. Weak Track Record
Fiorina’s tenure as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (which concluded with her termination by the Board of Directors in 2005) and her 2010 U.S. Senate election loss, were career failures that weighed heavily on a candidate trying to convince voters that she could govern the country. These historical events were explainable. For example, one of the HP board members who voted to fire Fiorina announced in 2015 that his vote had been a mistake –but the explanations were always more nuanced than pithy attacks arguing that Fiorina “destroyed HP” and “lost a winnable Senate race in a landslide.”
Many voters are willing to accept a candidate with a mixed track record. Unfortunately, Fiorina didn’t have a mixed record. No comparable successes existed to offset the HP and Senate race failures. Throughout 2015, Fiorina attacked Hillary Clinton by arguing that “Titles are not accomplishments. . . . What have you accomplished?” If one applies that standard to Fiorina, her list of accomplishments is too weak to head the top of the ticket.
2. Marketing Failure
Throughout her campaign, Fiorina attempted to brand herself as an outsider as she railed against the “political class” and frequently used populist phrases like “take our country back.” Fiorina’s well-honed lines struck a dissonant tone in light of her past political connections. The former surrogate for the 2008 McCain presidential campaign was a bigger political insider than several other candidates in the Republican primary field.
Other than Marco Rubio, Fiorina was probably the most conservative candidate who would have been acceptable to both conservative activists and “Establishmentarians.” Fiorina likely decided to assume an outsider persona after she was unable to gain much traction with establishment fundraisers.
3. Lost Breakout Opportunity
Fiorina enjoyed a brief breakout moment during the campaign. After a highly-lauded performance during the junior varsity Republican debate held on August 6, 2015, she appeared on the main stage of the next debate on September 16. Fiorina turned in a stellar debate performance during which she masterfully handled Donald Trump and delivered to robust applause an impassioned condemnation of the Planned Parenthood videos claiming they showed “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Within one week of the September 16 debate, Fiorina’s national RealClearPolitics polling average surged from 3 percent to nearly 12 percent, behind only Trump and Ben Carson. Shortly thereafter, the Fiorina surge ended and her polling numbers tumbled by half within a month and eventually returned to her pre-surge 3 percent poll percentage. There are a few possible reasons for the sharp rise and fall of Fiorina’s fortunes.
First, Fiorina’s mischaracterization of the Planned Parenthood videos during the September 16th debate– and more importantly, her response to the fact checkers –damaged her credibility. Following the debate, several journalists confronted Fiorina with the fact that her description of the Planned Parenthood videos had been inaccurate. Rather than walk back her debate description as being accurate in spirit, Fiorina repeatedly claimed, “I have seen those images.” She tried to use Trump’s technique of deploying bravado to overwhelm reality, but discovered that the political laws of gravity applied to her.
Second, Carson supporters may have briefly flirted with Fiorina. As Fiorina’s poll numbers surged, Carson’s dipped. Thereafter, Carson experienced a massive rise in the polls (and briefly moved ahead of Trump) at the same time that Fiorina’s poll numbers steadily declined. Absent Carson’s presence in the race, Fiorina may have had more time to make her case.
Finally, the attention showered on Fiorina following the September 16th debate was accompanied by more rigorous media scrutiny. Voters impressed with Fiorina’s debate performance may have decided to move on to other candidates after learning the details of her record.
4. Gender Factors
As the sole female candidate in the primary race, Fiorina faced headwinds not directed at the male candidates. Although the vast majority of Republicans were fine with a woman serving as president, some may have been preferred a male in that role (albeit, many others saw her gender as an asset in a theoretical match-up against Clinton). In addition, Fiorina at times appeared to play the “gender card.” Whether intentional or not, that played poorly with a party base that strongly dislikes political correctness and specious bias assertions.
Fiorina did not commit a career-ending snafu, and her impressive debate performances are the most memorable aspect of her campaign. If Fiorina receives the vice presidential nod, in hindsight her long shot, profile-raising campaign should be considered a tremendous success.
Bonus: Subpar Campaign Organization
Fiorina’s staff may have failed to effectively utilize human capital. Early in the primary season, I drove 90 minutes to attend a Fiorina fundraiser because I wanted to meet her. At the fundraiser, I told Fiorina that I wanted to work for her campaign. After a top advisor with whom I had been long acquainted later informed me by e-mail that the campaign was not hiring, I enthusiastically offered my assistance on a volunteer basis. In addition, I contacted a deputy campaign manager with whom I was also acquainted and an attorney who worked for the campaign, but nothing materialized.
As a former underfunded candidate myself, I understand how good leads are sometimes never developed due to more pressing priorities. However, no volunteer should be turned away without a good reason. The campaign undoubtedly had a volunteer coordinator, but no one referred me. My experience is anecdotal, but it suggests that Fiorina’s star might have shone more brightly if her campaign machinery had been better calibrated.
Kris Hammond is a civil rights attorney, communications professional, and political strategist. For ten years, he served as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Twice a candidate for public office, he is member of the D.C. Republican Committee.