Why Does Carly Fiorina Think She Can Be President?

How Carly Fiorina can be president
Carly Fiorina got ousted as CEO, demoted by John McCain and blew a Senate bid but she’s got game. Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina lost the one previous campaign she's run—a biggie, for California Senate in 2010—and was more or less demoted from a high-profile surrogate role in John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. Not exactly a sparkling political resume. So what makes this one-time Silicon Valley bigwig think she can mount a credible run for the presidency, which she announced Monday?

According to Fiorina herself, it's her heterodox appeal—something that neurosurgeon Ben Carson is also playing up in his campaign, likewise launched Monday. While Fiorina lost to Democrat Barbara Boxer by 10 percentage points in 2010, 52 to 42 percent, she told reporters following her annoucement: "I demonstrated I could unify the party; I could reach beyond the party." She handily won a three-way GOP primary in 2010, Fiorina pointed out, and her results in the general election demonstrated "that a conservative can reach out to Democrats and independents."

Indeed, it's a little bit hard to weigh that assertion in a state like California, where roughly a quarter of voters aren't registered with either main party, but tend to lean strongly one way or another. But despite a strong pro-life stance and other socially conservative views, the 2010 results do show that Fiorina performed particularly well in moderate parts of the state, like Sacramento and Fresno, as well as San Diego, which is evenly split among Democrats and Republicans with a sizable independent vote. She underwhelmed in the Bay Area, however, counties like Contra Costa and Santa Clara where her pro-business appeal didn't seem to gain as much traction as some might have expected.

Fiorina didn't bring it up with reporters, but there's an even bigger reason she stands out in what's already a crowded Republican field, and it's pretty obvious. She's the only woman in a sea of suits, something she has implied would give her a leg up in a contest against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Fiorina isn't subtle about who she's aiming her fire at—the online video launching her presidential campaign doesn't open with Fiorina or Obama or any of her Republican opponents; it opens with a clip of Clinton. And while Fiorina told one reporter she would run regardless of who the Democratic nominee is, Clinton's likely nomination helps give her campaign a rationale as the GOP's female counterpoint.

Fiorina, however, runs the risk of getting pigeonholed, both as the "woman candidate" and as the anti-Hillary candidate, with no positive vision of her own. Her monomaniacal focus on Clinton is similar to how she attacked Boxer, which didn't work. As the San Francisco Chronicle observed in its postmortem of the race, that "drove Boxer's disapproval ratings even higher, but it also didn't allow voters to get to know Fiorina."

Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist who worked on former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's gubernatorial campaign that same year, says it made sense for Fiorina to make the contest a referendum on Boxer. But in a presidential run, he says, "I do think it needs to be a more 360-degree view of who she is, rather than just being the woman against Hillary Clinton."

Stutzman also thinks Fiorina has unheralded political skills that, while less useful in a huge state like California, could make her a real factor in early primary states (though probably not a contender for the nomination). Fiorina, Stutzman says, is "remarkably good at .. retail politics"—the one-on-one connections and personal conversations that drive so much of Iowa and New Hampshire presidential politicking. Nontraditional candidates like her and Carson could very well pull a sizable chunk of votes in those states, further muddying the path for some mainstream favorites. That alone is argument to pay attention to Fiorina. As Stutzman says, "I really do think she should not be dismissed."