Last year, if you’d predicted that Carly Fiorina, she of the Demon Sheep and Boxer Blimp ads, would one day run within the margin of error against incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer, let alone lead her, you’d be laughed at for being an unserious shill for the Palinite powers-that-be within the GOP. Yet as of today, that is precisely what has happened, as a recent Rasmussen poll shows Fiorina leading Boxer by one point – a razor thin margin easily within the margin of error, but still one worth concern among observers who had previously thought that Boxer’s victory would be inevitable against anyone but Tom Campbell.
The reasons why Fiorina has shown herself to be a tougher-than-usual opponent for Boxer are manifold, but can be summed up with three simple words: Discipline, allies and expectations. With respect to discipline, perhaps the most unexpected of the factors, given that Fiorina was almost laughably undisciplined during her primary campaign (the aforementioned ads can attest to that), it seems that Fiorina has pulled out of the rut. Not only that, but relative to Boxer, her discipline in staying on message has been surprising. Exhibit A is probably the recent Senate debate, in which Boxer, despite her attempt to cast herself as the two candidates, found herself straying from the topics at hand a bit more obviously than Fiorina. The downside of this hyper-disciplined approach (and there is always a downside) is that Fiorina can appear hard, rigid and inhuman in her dedication, but on the other hand, she can also intimidate supporters of Boxer more capably with such an appearance.
Then, there is the matter of allies. Whatever else one thinks of Fiorina, it is undeniable that she has done a good job of collecting powerful and visible allies who will push her to the forefront in whatever race happens to be taking place. In the primary, for instance, Fiorina’s courtship of Sarah Palin can be seen as an example, though this is less clear, given that Palin’s endorsement could easily backfire in the general election. However, perhaps the textbook example is Fiorina’s usage of help from the US Chamber of Commerce, which has recently been going to bat for her. The Chamber, which mostly concerns itself with employer advocacy and economic growth, could prove to be a powerful ally in a state as clearly affected by the recession as California. Granted, Boxer has both labor unions and Hollywood to back her, but it’s not clear that these elements would necessarily hold the same weight that they would in other election cycles. Unions are bound to be less powerful in non-manufacturing states, and as for Hollywood, their influence is just as likely to backfire for Boxer as Palin’s is for Fiorina.
And finally, there is the element of expectations. Put simply, Fiorina is running against an opponent who in any other election cycle would be dismissed as unbeatable, and with good reason. To be within the margin of error against such a person is itself an achievement, and one that Fiorina can ride all the way through November unless her lead grows to be so commanding that Boxer begins to look like the underdog. If this latter scenario occurs, Fiorina will probably begin to face more problems, as her background does not lend itself well to being the frontrunner in a race where underdog status can mean the difference between voter sympathy and voter revulsion. Boxer thrives on negativity, as her recent performance in the debate showed, and to put her in the position of a challenger would lead Fiorina to a rather awkward position. The other problem for Fiorina is the chance of an October surprise, a chance that only gets larger as the election gets closer and Boxer gets more and more cognizant of her own vulnerability. It’s not for nothing that Boxer has been in office for almost 30 years, and given her commitment to being called “Senator,” we shouldn’t expect her resolve to waver under any circumstances.
This race is unresolved, and is just getting interesting. But there are good reasons why Fiorina has begun to edge Boxer, and why the person formerly responsible for unserious ads should be taken with dead seriousness now.