Whatever happened to Carly Fiorina?
After a series of standout debate performances, the former Hewlett-Packard executive has recently been all but invisible in the GOP 2016 field. At the same time, the super PAC working to be her ground army has struggled to turn early Fiorina fans into committed voters.
Fiorina’s polling has slipped from its September high, down from her one-time second-place standing in a CNN/ORC poll to 3% or 4% in recent surveys. Her media buzz is waning, too. After being mentioned 2,423 times in September on television programs largely thanks to a show-stopping debate performance midway through the month, her mentions lagged in October; even after another strong debate performance in Milwaukee earlier this month, the candidate has been mentioned just 1,145 times in November so far, according to closed caption records.
“She’s completely out of the conversation,” Republican strategist Susan Del Percio told MSNBC. “I was watching “Morning Joe” today, and they were talking about the outsiders and I didn’t even think of her – and they didn’t mention her. It’s like Ted Cruz took her spot.”
Indeed, as Fiorina struggles to revive her early momentum, former back-of-the-pack candidates like Cruz are rising. Indeed, Fiorina's biggest hurdle in the race is just how much of an outsider she is. She lacks the cult-like following of fans and supporters who knew Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson ahead of their presidential bids; there's a steep learning curve as followers get to know her -- which few did before the first two debates -- and it makes everything from the fundraising to the voter conversion that much more difficult.
Del Percio said she suspects cash flow -- and the early-state infrastructure it can buy -- may have limited Fiorina’s ability to capitalize on her early debate successes. According to Fiorina’s official fundraising reports, she has struggled to raise money -- raking less than $2 million in the second quarter. It picked up in the third quarter when she raised $6.8 million. The good news for her campaign is she’s impressed GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch: One of their political organizations, Americans for Prosperity, will feature her at an upcoming event in Nevada, giving her a chance to reach the group’s deep-pocketed donors and network of activists. She may even get a chance to impress the Koch brothers themselves, who have so far said they don't have "plans" to endorse in the primary race.
Fiorina’s campaign won’t talk about staffing numbers in key early states, but on the ground the operation looks slim: she’s got a total of four visible campaign staffers on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire -- two in each state -- and otherwise relies heavily on her super PAC for the ground game.
The group, CARLY for America, has got three times as many staffers in those two key early voting states. The group also handles the advance work for most of Fiorina’s events, staffing and taking signatures, putting up signs, and interfacing with supporters.
Asked about the campaign's early state infrastructure, Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores told MSNBC to talk to the super PAC. "From our perspective, we think they are building a team that will be formidable,” in an email.
The strength of the super PAC has tested the limits of vague federal regulations designed to keep campaigns and independent groups separate; the group has already been scolded by the FEC for using the candidate's name and calling itself Carly for America. In response, the group has changed its name to Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America -- CARLY for America for short, of course.
Still, there are limits to what a super PAC can do for a campaign. It can’t pay for the candidate's extensive travel, pick up the hefty fees to get on state ballots, and it can't coordinate on messaging or divide and conquer outreach in early states. The big voter databases built by the super PAC stays with the group -- unable to be accessed in any way by the campaign.
Fiorina sent out an video message to supporters this week arguing that the "political class" is working to keep "outsider candidates" off the ballot by charging big fees or requiring lots of paperwork. To be sure, those are the requirements for every candidate to get on the ballot -- not just outsiders -- but it's a heavier load for a smaller campaign operation like Fiorina's.
Meanwhile, Fiorina continues doing what's gotten her this far: making personal appearances and speaking with the press, She did a half dozen national interview (five on Fox, one on MSNBC) as well as radio and regional television interviews last week, and she’s touring early states with an event-heavy schedule. She did swings in Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire this month; after the Thanksgiving holiday, she’ll head to South Carolina.
"We can't change their rules, but what we can do is beat them at their own game," Fiorina says in the video to supporters on Tuesday and she condemned the hurdles and costs her campaign will face to get her on the ballot.
But the candidate is down to the wire: she's got over two months till the Iowa caucuses, where she's going to have to overcome that game -- and big odds -- to win.