Fiorina Has No Clear Lane to GOP Nomination

by Stuart Rothenberg November 4, 2015 · 9:16 AM EST

Carly Fiorina is popular among Republicans, both nationally and in Iowa. And yet, when those same Republicans are asked to name their preferred candidate for president, they generally don’t select her. Why?

Is it simply, as some have suggested, that Republicans don’t want to vote for a woman, or that she isn’t getting enough attention in the Iowa and national media? Or is it that there already are two political outsiders leading the GOP race, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and there is no room for another candidate who has never held elective office?

I don’t dismiss any of these possible explanations. But it’s also possible that Fiorina’s big problem is that, unlike many of the candidates in the contest, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO doesn’t have an easily identifiable lane in the race.

Is Fiorina an outsider, because she has never held office and complains about the status quo and her party’s congressional leadership?

Or, is she an establishment figure, since she was the chief executive officer of a company that currently ranks 19th on Fortune’s list of American companies by total revenue and ranked 11th in 2004, Fiorina’s last full year running the company?

She certainly wasn’t a favorite of the tea party or anti-establishment voters when she challenged Sen. Barbara Boxer in California in 2010, or when she served as a surrogate for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.

If Fiorina is an outsider, she is competing against other candidates who fill the outsider bill as much — or more — than she does. And if she is a pragmatist, she might want to change her rhetoric and message.

The Oct. 16-19 Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register/Iowa Poll reveals how Fiorina’s strength in the race — broad appeal within the party — may be limiting her ceiling.

Two-thirds of Iowa GOP caucus-goers in that poll had a favorable view of Fiorina, which put her behind only Ben Carson (84 percent) and Marco Rubio (70 percent) in the race. She had a higher favorable rating than Trump (59 percent), Ted Cruz (61 percent), 2008 Iowa caucuses winner Mike Huckabee (61 percent) or Jeb Bush (50 percent).

But more Republicans had a “very favorable” opinion of Carson (53 percent), Cruz (28 percent) and Trump (27 percent) than of Fiorina or Rubio (26 percent each).

Not surprisingly, the lower intensity level for Fiorina and Rubio showed up in the ballot test, where Carson (28 percent), Trump (19 percent) and Cruz (10 percent) finished first, second and third.  Rubio, who like Fiorina competes in multiple candidate lanes, was fourth in the ballot test at 9 percent. Fiorina drew just 4 percent.

Interestingly, the survey asked Republican caucus-goers about their second choice for the nomination. Carson topped the list with 19 percent, but Fiorina (13 percent) and Rubio (11 percent) followed.

Fiorina is well-liked by Republicans, but she isn’t turning that into electoral preference in national or Iowa ballot tests. Rubio has faced the same challenges, but because political reporters and handicappers regard him as competing against Bush in the “establishment” primary (and is now the favorite in that lane), he is viewed increasingly as a very serious contender for the GOP nomination.

In addition, Rubio is a proven vote-getter, and his skills as a debater and communicator are at least equal to Fiorina’s.

But Fiorina’s inability to take advantage of her strong debate skills and rave reviews also raises questions about her campaign, which has been unable to build on her performances and generate the sort of earned media she needs to grow her support among rank-and-file Republicans.

If she isn’t getting the media attention she needs, whose fault is it — the candidate’s or her campaign’s? Either way, it is not an easily solved problem for Fiorina, who is never as bombastic as Trump or as personally likable as Carson.

Whatever the answer, Fiorina has done well enough at high-profile moments to become more relevant than a number of current and former officeholders in the race. The longer she stays in the race, and the smaller the field gets, the more opportunities she will have to speak to GOP caucus attendees and primary voters.

Fiorina faces an obvious conundrum: She needs to show movement in the ballot test to increase her buzz, but she needs to increase her buzz to start to move up in the ballot test. Still, as long as she impresses and stays in the race, she helps her party by adding a different voice — and a different look — in a party that needs to demonstrate openness and diversity.