One of the most intriguing potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016 is former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina. The logic of Ms. Fiorina’s candidacy is reasonably straightforward. As the only woman in a crowded field of men, and the only candidate with extensive private sector experience, Ms. Fiorina, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in California, can easily stand out from the rest of the field. Additionally, as a woman, and somebody whose national profile is not centered around far-right opinions on social issues, Ms. Fiorina could be well positioned to challenge likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a general election. Ms. Fiorina might be able to be strong candidate, but her path to the nomination will not be easy. There is little reason to think that Republican women will automatically support her; and while Republicans hate big government, many primary Republican voters are not exactly enamored of big business either.
The idea of Ms. Fiorina as being well positioned, as a woman, to beat a likely female Democratic nominee is an appealing one, but it should also be tempered by remembering that in her only previous race, Ms. Fiorina lost to a woman, Barbara Boxer, by ten points. Moreover, that race was initially one where the Republican Party had thought they had a real chance to unseat the liberal Democratic incumbent.
In presidential campaigns, it is not unusual for candidates, even those who have spent years in public office, to describe themselves as outsiders and not career politicians. For Ms. Fiorina, however, this will be much easier. She is genuinely not a politician. Although some might claim she ran respectably in her Senate race, losing by only ten points in a heavily Democratic State, albeit in a Republican year, Ms. Fiorina did not particularly distinguish herself as a gifted campaigner.
Despite that unsuccessful campaign, in a recent interview on Fox News, Ms. Fiorina described the probability of her running for President as being “higher than 90 percent.” The interview may be most memorable for Ms. Fiorina’s description of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the federal government that included the comment, “How many Inspector General reports do we need to read that say, ‘you know, you can watch porn all day long and get paid exactly the same way as somebody who’s trying to do their job?’” Although it probably would have been better if Ms. Fiorina had said something like “goof off on Facebook,” rather than “watch porn,” her point is clear. Nobody, alas, ever lost votes in a Republican Primary by criticizing government bureaucracy as being too big. A message like that will not make Ms. Fiorina stand out from the rest of the field; In fact, it makes her sound like every other career politician.
Ms. Fiorina said something earlier in the interview, however, that was more significant and the kind of theme around which a successful campaign could be built. When asked why voters should choose her over the rest of the crowded Republican field, she responded “because I have a deep understanding of how the economy actually works. Having … become the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world…because I understand technology, a transformational tool … and because I understand executive decision making.” That is a Republican message that can resonate with swing voters and younger voters, a demographic that trends Democratic in recent presidential elections. Additionally, Ms. Fiorina’s impressive rise from a bookkeeper in a hair salon to CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world is a contrast that could work to her favor in a year where both parties are vulnerable to the charge of being dominated by family dynasties.
Business executives, however, often look like better candidates in the abstract than when examined more closely. Ms. Fiorina may not an exception. Notions of corporate experience, making tough decisions and leadership may appeal to voters, but records, like Ms. Fiorina’s that include declining stock prices, layoffs and being ousted by her companies board, are often less appealing to voters. This is at least part of the reason why Ms. Fiorina was unable to oust Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. Rose Kapolczynski, Senator Boxer’s campaign manager in the 2010 race against Ms. Fiorina noted that, “Voters who felt the Fiorina story was very appealing completely changed their view of her once they heard that she laid off workers and shipped jobs overseas.��� Rose Kapolczynski went further, summarizing the Democratic argument against Fiorinia, saying “Carly Fiorina is Mitt Romney light. All of the downside of his business record of shipping jobs overseas and none of his upside-being governor and the Olympics. All she has done is be a CEO and she has failed at that. I don’t know how she beats in Hillary Clinton in 2016.”
The question for Ms. Fiorina, like any Republican who hopes to be competitive in a general election is how to balance conservative views, particularly on social issues, that are necessary to win a primary, with the need to win over swing voters who are not moved by thundering against marriage equality, abortion rights or the belief that climate change is a left wing conspiracy. In other words Ms. Fiorina, a woman with a very slim public record, must persuade voters of her credentials as a social conservative, without being defined by those views.
At the moment, Ms. Fiorina is the product of two very different narratives. On one hand, she is a dynamic and successful businesswoman who by dint of experience, gender and style is unambiguously different from the male career politicians against whom she will be running. However, she is also a failed candidate who could not beat one of the country’s most liberal senators in a Republican year, and who has spent the last decade dabbling in corporate boards, politics and other pastimes of retired rich businesspersons, with little record of accomplishment. If she is able to persuade voters of the former narrative, it is not hard to see Carly Fiorina being a legitimate candidate and having a future in politics. If her opponents succeed in portraying her as the latter, it will be a short and not very happy campaign for the former Hewlett-Packard CEO.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.