Seasoned observers of California’s political system are understandably hesitant to write off Barbara Boxer. Being one of the most entrenched and well-known politicians in Washington, Boxer is a formidable opponent, and the GOP has been unable to find someone to tackle her thus far.
As such, when Carly Fiorina won the Republican primary, many pointed to her early gaffes, primary-level lack of discipline, and dubious record as CEO of Hewlett Packard as evidence that Fiorina would soon go the way of her less-credible counterparts in losing to Boxer.
Whether this will still happen is anyone’s guess. However, recent developments suggest that this result, while still possible and maybe even probable, is hardly pre-ordained. To begin with, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Fiorina trailing in a four-point squeaker against Sen. Boxer. Ironically, this is a smaller lead on Boxer’s part than that posted by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown against the more moderate Meg Whitman, who trails by 6 points. Moreover, Ipsos poll analyst Clifford Young said that, while Democrats leading in the polls is to be expected, this element is to be expected because of name recognition rather than support for substantive policy positions. "We should see some sort of dimunition of that advantage,” Young argues, once the Republican name ID kicks up.
Obviously, name recognition is a double-edged sword for any candidate, since it enables that candidate’s name to be identified with particular policy/personal decisions they’ve made in the past. Every political strategist attempts to exploit this to their candidate’s advantage, though perhaps the most successful example of tactical branding comes from Karl Rove’s playbook for the 2004 Bush Campaign, in which Rove used precisely the decisions which Kerry hoped to brand himself with to make Kerry look weak.
Fiorina is not copying the Rove playbook; rather, she is inverting it. Being conscious that the major priorities for Californians are currently economic issues, Fiorina has tailored her message to be almost entirely economic, and has done so in a manner that is fairly inventive. For one thing, Fiorina has taken classic Republican economic remedies (such as tax relief) and put inventive, old-school populist twists on them. For instance, in arguing for 10-year tax breaks for companies that return their facilities to the US, she has used the logic of tax relief to achieve American job protection (a priority associated more with the pro-union Left than the free trade Right).
On a more risky note, Fiorina has attempted to take the lead even in branding her own supposed flaws – for instance, by taking ownership of the issue of her tenure as CEO of Hewlett Packard. One of the charges most often flung at Fiorina by the Boxer campaign is that she fired large amounts of workers during her tenure, thus showing a supposed lack of empathy for the plight of workers. However, in a nervy (and not necessarily wise) move, Fiorina has attempted to argue that this credential makes her uniquely qualified to make tough decisions regarding the best method of job creation as a Senator. According to a story in last week’s Los Angeles Times, for instance:
“For months, opponents of Republican Senate nominee Carly Fiorina have predicted that her record as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard — laying off tens of thousands of workers and outsourcing jobs to other countries — would lead to her defeat in November. But on Wednesday, Fiorina sought to turn that logic on its head, arguing that her experience with those difficult decisions makes her uniquely qualified to tackle job creation issues in Washington.”
One has to admire the contrariness of this claim, though whether being this candid about one’s ability to make harsh decisions will necessarily help Fiorina in a left-leaning state is not a given. Even so, her love for unorthodox strategies has apparently come down to earth, producing a candidate who is not afraid to step outside the box, nor to occasionally fiddle with the Overton window.
Her campaign will give Californians quite a show, whether it wins or loses.