Welcome to Carly Fiorina’s moment.
After a commanding performance at last week’s GOP presidential debate, she is the newest Republican rock star. Not only was she cheered at the Heritage Action for American forum in Greenville, South Carolina, and well-received at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan, this past weekend, but in the latest CNN poll, she wins 15 percent of Republican primary voters, making her second, behind Donald Trump and just ahead of Ben Carson.
It’s an important victory for her long-shot, outsider campaign, which needs publicity to thrive in the absence of institutional Republican support from donors and fundraisers to activists and lawmakers. But it comes with a cost: scrutiny.
Here’s the thing about running for president. Once you become somebody—a strong debater or a leader in the polls—you have to deal with an eager and enthusiastic press that wants to know your background. This isn’t just an opportunity for aggressive journalists; it’s a chance for critics and political rivals to do damage. And it’s this scrutiny that is often the thing—or one of them—that destroys a candidacy, especially one like Fiorina’s that rides on voter anger and discontent.
What happens? Either the press finds scandal—like the sexual harassment claims against Herman Cain in the 2012 primary—or unearths a record that undermines the candidate in one way or another. Fiorina is scandal-free, so far. But just a glance at her business career reveals bad judgment, worse performance, and deep political vulnerability.
The Associated Press, for example, is unsympathetic to Fiorina’s attempt to rehabilitate and tout her time at Hewlett-Packard. “The truth is, her HP tenure was rocky,” writes the AP before undermining Fiorina’s claim that she “doubled the size” of the company:
She’s referring to HP’s annual revenue, which rose above $80 billion after Fiorina pushed through a 2002 deal to buy Texas computer-maker Compaq, which had $40 billion in annual sales before the deal.
HP, however, continued to struggle after the massive acquisition. Profit fell from $3.7 billion in 2000 to a net loss of $900 million in 2002. While profit recovered to $3.5 billion in 2004, the company missed some key earnings projections along the way.
To be sure, the 2001 dot-com bust hurt many tech companies, including HP. But despite Fiorina’s efforts to cut costs by slashing 30,000 jobs, HP’s stock fell 50 percent, lagging behind rivals IBM and Dell. She was ultimately fired after clashing with directors who pressed her to share authority with subordinates.
A more outspoken piece from Politico Magazine—from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who Fiorina criticized at the debate—covers the same ground:
Here are the facts: In the five years that Fiorina was at Hewlett-Packard, the company lost over half its value. It’s true that many tech companies had trouble during this period of the Internet bubble collapse, some falling in value as much as 27 percent; but HP under Fiorina fell 55 percent. During those years, stocks in companies like Apple and Dell rose. Google went public, and Facebook was launched. The S&P 500 yardstick on major U.S. firms showed only a 7 percent drop. Plenty good was happening in U.S. industry and in technology.
Fiorina, argues Sonnenfeld, “refuses to learn from failure,” plays “fast and loose with highly misleading metrics,” and makes “irresponsible” strategic decisions. The Washington Post isn’t as pointed, but it’s also noticed the large gap between Fiorina’s rhetoric and her record. For someone running on their business experience, this assessment is fatal, especially given Mitt Romney and his problems with Bain Capital, the firm where he made his fortune. In the 2012 election, Democrats and Republicans blamed Romney for layoffs at companies controlled by Bain.
In all likelihood, these charges against Fiorina will gain steam as her opponents attempt to win an advantage over the surging candidate. Already, BuzzFeed reports she was paid $48,000 for a speech to a bank that violated U.S. sanctions on Iran, and Bloomberg View reports that Fiorina’s HP sold “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of products to Iran through a foreign subsidiary, despite strict U.S. export sanctions.” There’s no question that by the next debate, other Republican candidates—to say nothing of the press—will have sharp points on these issues and others.
Will Fiorina survive the questioning? It depends on voters and how they respond to questions about her business record and basic competence. But if this is anything like the 2012 Republican primary, there’s a good chance this ends with her decline. From her rapid rise to prominence after last week’s debate to the present period of scrutiny, Fiorina’s trajectory fits a typical pattern of boom and bust for marginal candidates in presidential contests.
First, note political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck in The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Election, there’s “discovery,” which begins when “a candidate who had previously attracted little news coverage did or said something that reporters and commentators judged to be novel, important, and therefore newsworthy. As a consequence, news coverage of that candidate increased sharply.” Often, this is positive, the kind of buzz that helps win attention and support in the polls.
Then, there’s “scrutiny,” where the now-serious candidates face closer critique and examination from media and other sources. And after voters sour and media moves on, there’s decline. “Unless the candidate did something else that was considered newsworthy, his or her news coverage began to decline, which in turn further drove down the candidate’s poll numbers.”
Almost all candidates exist in this cycle. Whether they survive depends on the fundamentals of their campaigns. It’s not guaranteed (see: Rick Perry, 2011; Scott Walker, 2015), but those with firm institutional backing—from cash to endorsements—can endure scrutiny and decline to eventually succeed, or at least move to the next round of the fight. Those without, like Fiorina, Trump, and Carson, almost always lose their footing.
That said, it’s possible to game the system. To generate a constant cycle of “discovery” that sustains positive coverage, or at least, the kind that helps you with supporters and allies. Trump, arguably, has done this, and it’s kept him at the top of the polls. Can Fiorina? If she can, it might give her, like Trump, a small (if narrow) chance at victory.