Fiorina Needs Another Good Debate
The Republican primary debates have served as fuel for Carly Fiorina’s long-shot presidential bid. The businesswoman’s standout performances in Cleveland and Simi Valley, Calif., have helped transform her from an underdog into a viable contender. Her poll numbers rose significantly in the immediate aftermath of both debates, and sizable cash donations followed.
But as she heads to Round 3 in Boulder, Colo., this week, there is perhaps more pressure on her than ever before.
A handful of recent national polls show Fiorina’s post-debate bump has faded, while candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson have maintained, and in some cases, increased, their leads. What’s more, another competitor, Marco Rubio, continues to rise.
The next debate offers the former Hewlett-Package CEO a chance to regain her stride. But her greater challenge is to better capitalize on that performance and prove her campaign is more than a series of bright but ephemeral moments on the grand stage.
The Fiorina campaign argues that the candidate’s upward trajectory from her start is more significant than the short-term ups and downs that have followed. And, as most campaigns believe, hers stresses that activity and standing in the early voting states matter more than national grades. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Fiorina places in the top five contenders in Iowa (where she is tied with Jeb Bush), New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
She has been actively focused on those early states, and her stump schedule is demanding enough to wear out the fittest of contenders. Fiorina has done 72 events in Iowa alone this cycle, according to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker. Only Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, who are essentially camped out in the state but still lagging in the polls, have done more.
On Friday, Fiorina made several stops in South Carolina, where she currently ranks third in the RCP average. Last week, she also campaigned in the Sunshine State. “You know in your heart of hearts that you cannot wait to see me debate Hillary Clinton,” she told a group there, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Indeed, Fiorina has positioned herself as the person in the GOP race best positioned and most unafraid to take on Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. But she has several other rivals to overcome first. And as the race wears on, Fiorina’s path has become murky.
On the one hand, she is technically a political outsider in an environment that favors such candidates. But her credentials in that regard aren’t quite pure. Unlike Trump and Carson, Fiorina has run for public office before — a U.S. Senate race in California in 2010, when she lost by a wide margin in a favorable year for Republicans. And her pedigree, resume, and beliefs are more aligned with the so-called establishment part of the party.
In many ways, this crossover is what makes her so appealing. She’s not a politician, and often laments the failings of the political class, but she is also acceptable to the party faithful, or those who may also be inclined to back someone such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, notes Nate Cohn of the New York Times’ “Upshot.”
But that dynamic also puts her in a tough spot. On the outsider side, Trump and Carson have big leads. And on the establishment-aligned side, Rubio, who has the political experience, is ascending, especially as Bush’s numbers fall.
“It’s not clear there is room for a new comer like Fiorina in the ranks of Bush and Rubio, if that’s her ultimate aim,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “She is quite capable of delivering a consistent, high-level performance that might inch her forward, but without the experience, it’s hard to see her lasting in the long run.”
Also working against her is the way in which Trump and Carson are able to garner media attention.
Even though Fiorina was considered the winner of the last debate, Trump managed to stay in the spotlight and remain relevant, even if it was by making outlandish or incendiary comments that earned him attention, like the fight he picked with Jeb Bush over his brother’s 9/11 legacy. Carson also managed to suck up the oxygen for a while with controversial remarks about Muslims and his response to the mass shooting in Oregon. (A Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers -- the second survey last week to show the retired neurosurgeon significantly leading Trump in the Hawkeye State -- found most respondents unfazed by, or even in agreement with, Carson’s remarks.)
“There’s no question Fiorina needs to take better advantage of her outstanding debate performances and her outstanding interview skills,” says Cheri Jacobus, a GOP strategist.
Fiorina earned plenty of media attention after the Simi Valley debate, but it was centered on a controversy that ultimately had a negative impact. Her business record at HP has come under higher scrutiny since then, namely the 30,000 jobs lost during a merger she orchestrated and her subsequent ouster, which included a handsome severance package. The attention also focused on the Planned Parenthood videos Fiorina referenced during her most emotional moment in the debate, a description that turned out to be inaccurate. Apparently to counter this, a campaign event in the days after the debate included a trip to a pregnancy center to watch a sonogram being performed.
While the controversy surrounding Fiorina and the Planned Parenthood videos isn’t likely to turn off GOP voters, the scrutiny surrounding her business record has the potential to, especially as other rivals, Trump in particular, pile on.
“She had two weeks of tough coverage basically saying she wasn't competent at the thing that's her number one credential,” notes Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA whose book on the 2012 election, “The Gamble,” details the impact of media coverage on campaigns.
“She’s got this moment where she is glowing [after the debate] and she needed to be able to seize on that, use the moment to trot out the campaign plan and strategy, what her message is, and how you differentiate from the others,” Vavreck says. “It’s a huge missed opportunity. … She needs to create something.”
Fiorina had a remarkable fundraising quarter, bringing in $7 million — $1 million more than Rubio and a substantial increased from the $1.7 million she raised in the previous period. She had $5.5 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.
Her campaign runs a very lean operation with few paid staffers. Spokeswoman Anna Epstein would not comment about whether the campaign planned to add more staff, but said the campaign does not have plans to run ads on the air anytime soon.
“Carly has spent the last month talking with voters, especially in NH, IA, and SC. We are very pleased with where the campaign is and we look forward to the opportunity for Carly to introduce herself to even more voters at next week's debate,” Epstein said in an email.
A super PAC, Carly for America, is focused specifically on the ground operation in the early states, which has tested the limits of coordination between the PAC and the campaign. (Carly for America isn’t planning on airing ads either.)
Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican strategist, says that Fiorina has been generating large crowds during her recent events in the state and that people are interested in her candidacy, but that her downward poll numbers show she hasn’t yet turned good debate performances into substantial ground efforts.
“She raised good money with all that attention, which is important, but ultimately attention and money have to turn into actual votes,” Robinson said. “I think not having a robust campaign operation in Iowa and instead relying on her super PAC to do that work may have hurt her.”
Wednesday’s debate, hosted by CNBC, will focus on the economy, which could give Fiorina a chance to tout her business credentials, but could also again raise the specter of her mixed record.
“She needs to be focused, credible, and articulate and clear on her positions,” says Jacobus. “And I think she should ignore Trump.”
Indeed, Trump’s controversial comments about her “face” gave Fiorina an opportunity at the last debate to take him on directly. This time, however, some strategists say, she needs to focus on herself.
“She has all the right tools, she has worked very hard, clearly, to learn and to sharpen her skills, and she has got the knowledge base and the right instincts,” says Penny Young Nance, the president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
“I expect she will shine and get another bump,” Nance says. “The question is whether or not those bumps at some point will catch fire.”