February 11, 2016
Indulge me in a little Butterfly Effect thinking. Pretend Chris Christie does a takedown on Marco Rubio in October instead of February. Specifically, the CNBC Republican Debate held on October 28. I’ll submit that if he had, neither Carly nor Christie would have exited the race yesterday.
By now, details from these events have faded into the ether, so I’ll refresh your memory. This was the debate where the moderators, specifically John Harwood, asked the type of questions that make conservatives distrust anything remotely connected to the mainstream media.
Ted Cruz hit his stride in this one, offering the best anti-media salvo since Newt Gingrich, Class of 2012, when he rattled off how the moderators attempted to embarrass or demean each of his opponents.
In the first two debates, Cruz struggled for oxygen. Those who knew of his college debating prowess were wondering when Mr. Princeton was going to show up. After his moderator slam, Ted took flight and arguably won the debate.
It was the first time he looked like a top-tier candidate and his poll numbers immediately began to move. First in Iowa, then nationally. Within a couple weeks he was in the conversation about possible Hawkeye State winners, and when Ben Carson began to fade, Ted was the beneficiary.
Today, Cruz is a top-tier candidate and Fiorina is past tense. When they calculated the poll averages for the CNBC debate in late October, these were the numbers:
She was down from her post-second debate heights, but Carly stacked up well with the two senators. For someone wanting a non-politician, she seemed safer than Donald Trump or Ben Carson. For someone wanting something more establishment-friendly, at least she wasn’t Trump, Carson, or Cruz.
When Cruz leapt forward after this debate, he replaced her in the trinity of leading outsiders. He got plenty of airtime over the following few days, and clips of his greatest debate hits were common. National Review types began thinking he was more marketable than previously believed.
Rubio had done well in the first two debates, but was still underperforming in the polls, stuck in the very high single digits. He was still about even with Jeb Bush. This was the night Jeb tried to salvage his campaign by attacking Marco on his Senate attendance record.
Instead of flattening Rubio like Christie did, it was the ultimate boomerang, sending Bush sliding further down the poll and elevating Marco. Within a couple weeks, Rubio had double Jeb’s support.
For voters wanting a solid conservative who debates well, but had just enough suitability for the general election, Marco moved past Carly and never looked back. Between Rubio and Cruz, Fiorina lost the majority of her remaining support.
Even after losing some momentum, she still entered the debate as the second choice of a good amount of voters, the third choice of another group. After the debate, she was still popular, but now fourth or fifth on many lists.
Cruz and Rubio are good politicians. They weren’t going to surrender the opening very easily. It’s not hard to imagine a different scenario though.
If the moderators were slightly less obnoxious, Cruz doesn’t have his window to use them as a prop that early in the debate. He does fine, but fades somewhat into the background on the full stage, as he had twice before.
Meanwhile, Christie, who was mired at 3% in the polling average, decides to go after Rubio before Jeb can. As Nate Silver pointed out, Trump got in the way of Christie’s ability to take advantage of his bombastic personality.
New Hampshire exit polls showed 62% of voters who wanted a candidate who “tells it like it is” chose Trump. That was Christie’s campaign slogan! In February, it was too late to pull voters away from The Donald.
In October, he was still leading the polls, but had less support than after Paris and San Bernardino. If Christie had done the Full New Jersey then, who knows, maybe he grabs some of the moderately conservative support that Trump now owns.
It wouldn’t have taken much to make a difference. Christie was stuck at 3% or worse and wasn’t doing significantly better in the individual states. As a result, he was relegated to the undercard in the next debate.
Temporarily destroying Rubio only won Christie another 2 to 3 percent this week, but the same gain would have doubled his support in the fall. It would have brought him plenty of media visibility.
Instead of starting over from scratch, working his way back to the main debate by focusing on national security, he could have run as the more responsible alternative to Trump.
This wouldn’t have involved direct attacks. Christie likely took tons of money from Trump, so not an option. More of a show, don’t tell. A slightly elevated Christie takes advantage of a stalled Bush and Kasich to appear the most viable governor.
The PAC attacks on his Jersey record would have followed, but in November, not January, giving him plenty of time to fight them off and hit his stride ahead of the New Hampshire vote. With a minimized Cruz and Rubio and a stronger Christie, the contest looks very different.
Even as things actually were, Fiorina remained popular in New Hampshire, just not a viable choice for strategic voters. She’s far more consistently conservative than Trump and Christie.
Especially if she’d done better in Iowa (in our alternative universe, she never misses a main debate and Rubio doesn’t do his late charge), Carly could have easily finished in the top three.
Both exiting candidates would have benefitted from this scenario. Unlike most of the previous casualties, who are good politicians but mostly were not good presidential candidates, Fiorina and Christie were. Parties have nominated less capable people.
Carly was always a long shot. Losing a Senate race by double-digits isn’t normally the launch pad for a presidential run. Her record at HP was mixed and sure to be a major issue. But every candidate has drawbacks and issues. Fiorina exhibited real talent as a candidate.
If Hillary was as fluid as she is, the Democratic nomination race wouldn’t be. We’ll see what Carly’s next step is, be it as a VP contender, cabinet secretary, or running for governor somewhere (I’m guessing she won’t try California again). If the GOP nominee loses, maybe she gives 2020 a shot.
We haven’t heard the last of Carly Fiorina.