Two immediate impacts of Ted Cruz’s picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate — in April, three months before the convention, while trailing in the delegate race — are obvious. One, Cruz gets a day’s worth of headlines, which is not a small thing when fighting for high stakes in a vote just a week away in Indiana. Two, it signals Cruz’s desperation — but then, it is obvious to everyone that the situation of Cruz (and by extension the entire Republican party and conservative movement in fending off a hostile takeover) is indeed desperate, in the sense that a few more losses in key states (Indiana, California) would hand the nomination to Donald Trump and thus the election to Hillary Clinton.
But it’s worth considering a few other angles. First, I don’t love the pick – Fiorina has run for office only once before and lost, and she proved unable to connect or capitalize with the voters in this race after a brief surge in the polls back in October following two good debate showings. She’s neither a known conservative popular with the ideological base nor is she what Cruz could really use — a known moderate popular with the people currently supporting Kasich and in some cases previously backing Rubio, Jeb, and/or Christie. If the polling is correct (and it may not be in Indiana, due to the state’s restrictive telemarketing laws), Cruz beats Trump in Indiana and California if he picks up most or all of the Kasich voters, and doesn’t if they vote Kasich or Trump. The more obvious primary strategy would have been Cruz-Rubio (especially back when Rubio was fresh from the race) or Cruz-Kasich (which would get this at last to a two-way race). But we have no reason to suspect either of them wanted that deal, and good reasons to think Cruz may have tried to work one out with both. Despite being a political “outsider,” Fiorina is also a CEO and part of the GOP establishment (her father was a senior Nixon appointee and she was a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign in 2008) with no natural connection to the kinds of blue-collar and working-class voters that have been the key voting bloc in this race. On the other hand, nobody runs ads against the business record of the running mate.
Second, this feels more like a general-election pick than a primary pick, given the need to neutralize Hillary Clinton’s “gender card.” That said, Trump has repeatedly reacted badly to criticism by women (another reason he matches up so terribly with Hillary), and getting Fiorina more visibility to go after him could yet provoke him into reactions that drive more of the Kasich vote into Cruz’s camp. And of course, just naming a running mate reminds people that Cruz is more of a serious candidate than Kasich.
Third, the downside is that Cruz now has nothing left to offer Kasich if he needs to cut a deal at the convention, and worse yet, Trump does. But maybe that’s a double-edged sword too, to the extent that some of Kasich’s voters are holding out hope that supporting him now improves his chances of being VP.
Fourth, Cruz may be banking on Fiorina helping him in California, where she won the GOP Senate primary in 2010 (grabbing 56 percent of the vote — 1.3 million primary voters — by running to the center of conservative Chuck DeVore and liberal Republican Tom Campbell) and got 4.2 million votes in November, more than Meg Whitman in that year’s gubernatorial race or Neel Kashkari in 2014. But again, her real appeal is questionable, since she did end up losing to Barbara Boxer in a great Republican year.
Fifth, this is the culmination of a strategically savvy campaign by Fiorina, who from the very beginning seemed to be running for vice president. She savvily saw a market opportunity in the absence of another female candidate in the GOP field preparing to run against Hillary, and used that to build a lot of national attention and name recognition. Her campaign from the start had nearly no grassroots presence or platform, but was built around showcasing what an effective attack dog Fiorina could be against Hillary. And even after an early misstep that could have sidetracked her (attacking Cruz’s Canadian birth in the run-up to Iowa), she jumped in with an endorsement of Cruz on March 9, immediately after the Saturday-to-Tuesday run of primaries when Marco Rubio’s campaign unraveled. That told me at the time she wanted to get in with Cruz before Rubio could make a deal, a deal that was widely rumored at the time but never happened. A running mate has to be in some ways on the same page as the nominee for it to be an effective partnership, and in that sense, Fiorina’s sharp elbows, strategic ruthlessness, and lack of a record cutting Washington deals (or indeed doing anything in public office) mesh well with Cruz’s approach.