There’s another GOP debate coming up on Wednesday (which reminds me that I need to hit the liquor store) and for a few of the candidates there’s a lot on the line. The candidate with perhaps the most to prove and the most to lose at this point is Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. As Caitlin Huey-Burns points out at Real Clear Politics, Fiorina’s fortunes have risen and fallen repeatedly since debate season kicked into gear, showing promise a couple of times but then sinking back down into the quagmire of second tier hopefuls.
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…
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.
I’ve been impressed with Fiorina from the beginning, finding myself particularly admiring her debate style, command of the issues and ability to take the battle to her opponents without looking “scary crazy” to political neophytes among the voters. But to revisit that statistic showing that Carly “places in the top five contenders” in several key states, the headline is a bit more impressive than the reality. In other presidential campaign cycles a top five finish would have been a huge story. At this stage in 2012 there were candidates going up and down like elevators and seeing anyone above 20 in the early running was rare. Being in the top five then meant you were solidly in contention.
This year, however, being in the top five means that you are one of three who are slightly higher in single digits than the other ten who are close to being graded with an asterisk, staring longingly up at the two guys who are in the twenties, thirties or occasionally near forty. That’s not exactly a case of being “in the mix.”
Why didn’t Carly Fiorina catch fire and join Trump and Carson at the top of the heap? After spending most of the spring and early summer fighting to get her name recognition above 30% nationally, Carly took advantage of the first “kid’s table” debate to wow the media and much of the nation. Her poll numbers more than doubled and her fundraising got a much needed boost. Then she seemed to level off and even decline a bit. The second debate came and she had her moment of glory responding to Trump’s “look at that face” comment, as well as demonstrating an impressive command of the issues. She was widely proclaimed as the winner of that debate and she rose in the polls again.
Today she is sitting in mid-single digits and arguably isn’t doing any better than Bush.
The problem here, if there is one, may be that debates are simply not the be all and end all of a presidential campaign. They are undoubtedly a fantastic opportunity for a lower name recognition candidate to make a big splash and get people talking about them, but they will not take you to the finish line. Somehow, following each of these debates, Carly has gone back out on the campaign trail seven days a week, doing all the work you need to do to reach the voters, but she has somehow managed to fade from the public’s mind. Part of that can be assigned to the Trump factor, no doubt, but at the end of the day each candidate rises and falls on their own performance. You simply can’t blame Trump for everything.
I think the media and the public are focusing very heavily on flash right now and flash simply isn’t what Fiorina is about. She’s talking policy and picking apart Hillary Clinton like a surgeon, but there’s nothing that grabs headlines. She’s working like a President has to work rather than a candidate, and those are two very different things. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but calm efficiency and competence in accomplishing all of your tasks isn’t what stampedes the voters in your direction. Being a winning candidate requires being a bit of show pony rather than the reliable draft horse. And you only get so many show pony moments on stage with the other candidates every six weeks or so.
I’m not sure what Fiorina could have done differently but she clearly has to find a new strategy to break out of her doldrums or this campaign will wind up as yet another also ran. And one more debate isn’t going to do it.