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Eye On Candidates
November 9, 2015

What Explains Fiorina’s Slide?

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina surprised many with her emergence as a serious contender for the Republican nomination. Following strong debate performances that propelled her to third place in many national polls (see the averages here), however, Fiorina has fallen back, although she remains above the 1 or 2 percent she was registering before the first debate. What explains the slide? Bloomberg Politics has an article that offers several credible explanations:

Why Carly Fiorina Has Stalled

On the night of the first Republican presidential debate, Carly Fiorina stormed the so-called kids' table, then got upgraded to the main stage. There, she gave a shrewd performance that shot her all the way to second place in a national CNN/ORC poll….

Since then, however, Fiorina hasn't found a way to break through in the broader race. Her poll numbers have notably fallen, despite another highly competent performance in the third debate last week…. 

As the next debate looms in Milwaukee, questions press in on her campaign: What has held Fiorina’s campaign back from the same kind of lift-off as [Marco] Rubio? And what can she, a master of the debate form, do to reverse the downturn?

The first two explanations are relatively obvious, and hardly unique to Fiorina. First the article suggests she continues to lack name recognition, and follows with the observation that businessman Donald Trump is consuming a great deal of media attention that might otherwise have helped to continue her emergence. The next few explanations seem to address items specific to Fiorina:

Signature Issue

“She hasn’t found her issue niche,” said Ann E. W. Stone, the founder of Republicans for Choice, a pro-abortion rights political action committee. “[Ben] Carson really started to go up after he made the comment about a Muslim president—that really does strike a chord with a lot of the xenophobic folks in the party. Trump, of course, had his anti-immigration comment.”…

 [Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania] said she was “waiting for the intriguing policy proposal from Fiorina that makes you say she isn’t just a standard business Republican.”

Ground Game

CARLY for America, a super-PAC supporting Fiorina, has managed her ground game, grassroots organizing, and infrastructure to an unusually large extent. By law, the super-PAC and her campaign aren't supposed to coordinate. The super-PAC’s activities help Fiorina conserve her own campaign dollars, but leaving voter mobilization to an outside group is risky.

Nancy Russell, chair of the Republican Party of Hanover County, a conservative area north of Richmond, Virginia, said that Fiorina is more or less the only candidate who has not reached out to seek her support on petitions and more. “It’s a surprise to me,” Russell said. “Everyone else has pretty decent organization, even [Rick] Santorum.”

Carson may lack political experience like Fiorina, but “he’s got an organization, he’s got offices, he’s got people,” said Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer (who conducts surveys for Bloomberg Politics). “He’s sort of doing the things you do to win a caucus,” she said, whereas Fiorina “doesn’t have the same kind of visibility.”

The article also suggests Fiorina struggles because she is an outsider, having never held office before, although that does not seem to be hindering Carson and Trump at this time. Finally, the article suggests her refusal to date to play the “gender card,” noting “As the only woman in the Republican field, it would seem she could depend on women as a natural constituency, yet, not wholly unlike Hillary Clinton in 2008, Fiorina does not want to make gender her pitch.”

Fiorina didn’t have the campaign infrastructure in place to take full advantage of her widely praised performance in the second Republican debate, largely due to a lack of funds. Her fundraising appears to have picked up in recent months, however, which could allow her campaign to be better prepared to exploit another strong debate appearance tomorrow evening in the ground game. But the lack of a signature issue will likely need to be addressed if she is going to continue as a serious contender for the GOP nomination.