October 20, 2015
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and all of that. A new CNN/ORC national poll on the GOP field has Carly Fiorina floundering at 4%. Her Real Clear Politics average is 5.6% and falling, so this isn’t a fluke.
When CNN/ORC polled a month ago in the immediate aftermath of the last debate, Carly scored at 15%, in second place, just ahead of Ben Carson. Now the Doctor is at 22%. Have Fiorina voters flocked to Carson? Is this a case of any outsider will do?
Perhaps. Consider this. When CNN polled ahead of the last debate, she was at 3%, Carson at 19%. The debate happens and they equalize. Another month and they’re back where they began.
Are voters acting irrationally? After all, these two candidates have very different background and experience. One was a decorated physician, the other a CEO. One speaks quickly, with great clarity and incisiveness. The other is clearly intelligent and a free thinker but can sometimes sound like Candidate Yoda.
You can make a case for taking each of them seriously (I have more than once), but shouldn’t an individual voter feel more strongly/positively about one or the other?
Is it a case of short memory or limited attention span? Have voters decided to forget Carson is a crappy debater or Fiorina a good one? Were they not paying that much attention in the first place and just following whatever the pundits parroted out after the debate?
Don’t think so. We know voters are paying more attention this time. 23 million watched the last debate. That doesn’t count streaming, listening on the radio, watching segments on You Tube (I managed to watch the entire Democratic round that way), etc.
If you play a word association game with many Republican voters and say “great debater” the reply is “Carly Fiorina”. However, she hasn’t yet shown she can press her case outside of debates or the semi-immediate aftermath.
A solid 60% of GOP voters favor the Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Cruz group. Support shifts back and forth, but the combined polling is consistent, with an overall up trend over the past couple months as they’ve advanced from near 50% to over 60% in the RCP average.
While each candidate is marketed as an outsider, and three haven’t held public office as the fourth pretends he isn’t a sitting senator, they aren’t very similar on the issues.
Ted Cruz is consistently to the right. It makes sense there’s a place for him in a Republican primary, especially as the party grows more conservative. However, he sometimes bleeds votes to Donald Trump, who is not a traditional conservative and has recent socially liberal positions on his record.
Fiorina is a foreign policy hawk who trades supporters with non-interventionist Carson. How does someone who liked hearing Carly talk about how she would stand up to Putin switch to the guy who would have passed on invading Afghanistan after 9/11?
In the words of Vince Lombardi, what the hell’s going on around here?!?!
Democrats are interested in ideology this time. They appear to prefer candidates who are left and moving further to the left. Bernie Sanders has done very well and Hillary is flying left faster than a private jet late for a meeting on the West Coast. Polls pronounce Dem voters happy with both.
Republicans want a fighter. Not just a loud one, but a brave and effective one. If he or she is very conservative, hey, that’s a plus, but given how all over the place the GOP is on things like protectionism and military intervention right now, guarding the borders and protecting life in the womb are the only issues not up for debate.
All candidates claim the mantle of conservatism but it’s unclear what that means at this exact moment.
There are a few measures voters are using to grade GOP candidates on their fighting aptitude and technique.
First is the ability to hang in against the media without resorting to double-speak. Carly passed the test with flying colors when pressed on her debate statements about the Planned Parenthood videos. All four outsiders do this very well, it’s a distinguishing trait for the group.
Second is the ability to regularly say things that aren’t politically correct. You have to do this on purpose the way Trump and Carson do, not accidentally like Jeb. In fact, fear of Bush repeating the Romney experience is some of what drives this.
Invariably, a Republican candidate will say something that one or more large interest groups and/or segments of the population might find offensive, especially if stoked by a Dem-friendly MSM. Listening to Jeb trip on himself is PTSD-inducing.
By contrast, Trump premeditatively chooses explosive positions. While even his supporters may not agree W is partially responsible for 9/11 or John McCain less of a hero for being captured, the key dog whistle is the willingness to say something potentially unpopular and double-down on it, as Trump did in saying he’d do more for veterans than McCain.
For voters used to GOP candidates following the topic rules on the way to slaughter, this is chicken soup for the soul. Where Jeb said “stuff happens” after the Oregon shooting and then awkwardly tried to explain how he was taken out of context, Carson did the unthinkable and grabbed the third-rail of public discourse by making a Holocaust reference.
Many were outraged Carson claimed an armed Jewish populace would have made things tougher on the Nazis, but it was a signal to outsider supporters he wouldn’t hesitate to make an obvious point just because he wasn’t supposed to and because his words would invariably get twisted.
Carly and Cruz don’t really participate in this technique. Both are particularly well disciplined and determined to show they are capable of governing. While they stand up for themselves at all times, they almost never say anything mainstream conservatives would find unreasonable (even Cruz is very rational to regular GOP ears when not taken out of context).
While they probably shouldn’t do things they aren’t comfortable with and a big part of their case is being seen by some as more ready for the presidency than the other two, in large part by avoiding stuff like this, it helps explain why they disappear at times.
Third is pushing back against party insiders. Trump’s very existence is a middle finger to the RNC. Carson supporters know their guy isn’t approved by the establishment. In particular, his refusal to sound like a normal presidential candidate is a signal this isn’t business as usual.
Cruz only gets to play sometimes. As an elected official, his window is to pick a fight with fellow senators or meddle in the House. When he gets space to do this it works. Otherwise he fades too.
Carly is actually pretty well thought of by a number of establishment figures, particularly the National Review types. While she touts her outsider background, is an ex-Fortune 50 really an outsider? As such, she can’t prove her bona fides by those in the GOP who oppose her.
The good news is she’s potentially both establishment and outsider worthy, a legit compromise candidate. Her favorable/unfavorable ratings are still extremely positive and she does better than many other GOP candidates in hypothetical general election match-ups.
The bad news is she doesn’t get enough negative attention, at least on a consistent basis. That negativity is the only way to keep over half the primary electorate convinced you’re safe. FDR’s old saying “judge me by the enemies I have made” applies to this contest.
Debates are the fourth measure and as we know Fiorina excels, while Cruz is polished if often unremarkable, Carson struggles and Trump is uneven at best to anyone beyond his fervent supporters.
If you total the four measures up, Trump does very well on the non-debate measures, as does Carson. As such, both do well in polling and have big leads on everyone else. Debates can hurt their standing, but with 5-6 week gaps, they have plenty of recovery time.
Cruz only has enough juice to stand out when Chaos in Congress is at the top of the news. Assuming he’s not ready to deviate from his issue script, he really needs a strong debate performance next week to get enough oxygen. Counting on Trump and/or Carson to lose altitude soon is an increasingly questionable strategy.
Fiorina needs to have a targeted post-debate strategy to stay in the news. She does better in the polls whenever there is more of her in the news. Without it, she will find herself with no margin for error in debates and needing to rebuild her position each time.
Marco Rubio was able to retain a good half of his post-debate bounce this time. After the first debate, his evaporated the same way Carly’s did. So there’s hope.
But Rubio has an easier path. His main competitors are the seemingly invisible Chris Christie and John Kasich along with Jeb Bush who does better the less people hear from him. As luck would have it, he’s the most visible insider.
At each stage in the race, from building a lithe organization with few resources, to crushing the first debate, to pushing her way into the second before dominating that one, to capitalizing on it to out-raise Rubio, Fiorina has done what was absolutely necessary to turn herself from asterisk to contender.
Now she needs to figure out how to stay in the limelight for the entire month of November (we’re taking the liberty of assuming another strong debate performance on 10/28). She’ll go up one more time, but it’s on her (and team) to plan the media attention to keep her up.
There won’t be a fourth bounce. Her outsider competitors will get progressively better at the debate scenario. The gap will narrow and they have an edge on many of the other measures. Team Fiorina needs to hope the third time is the charm.