Boxer down, but not out

Last week, I broached the topic of why Carly Fiorina was doing so well against incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. While that piece did cover one half of the story involving California’s Senate Race, it would be foolish indeed to conclude that it represents the entire picture. Barbara Boxer is in a tough fight, and we should be aware of that, but only a fool would count Senator Boxer out or get complacent facing Fiorina’s recent spike in the polls. If nothing else, Barbara Boxer is a fighter. 

Boxer’s advantages in this election are less obvious than Fiorina’s, given the peculiarities of this election cycle. However, given the centrality of statewide politics, and of rhetorical tone in California politics, treating the race solely at the nationalized, macro level would be a mistake. Boxer’s key advantages, then, can be boiled down to three factors: Geography, Tone and Negativity.  

First, geography. Despite its massive size, most would concede that California’s main sources of political power (and votes) are its urban centers, almost all of which (with the exception of San Diego and, recently, San Jose) skew Left. Moreover, statewide culture in California is monopolized by Hollywood glamour and glitz, with California being one of the few states that buys into its own mythology as the land where dreams come from. This makes Hollywood a major industry, but it also makes California’s electorate more easily led by star-studded names who (again) skew to the Left, by and large.

Boxer’s path to victory, therefore, is mathematically more easy to achieve by concentrating on a few select urban areas and expecting her work to trickle out to other places that are culturally akin to those areas. Focusing on San Francisco, for instance, would almost certainly net a large percentage of the voters in Monterey, due to the overwhelmingly maritime, cosmopolitan and yet suburban nature of both locales. Using Hollywood connections for donations and exposure can also give Boxer strength, albeit less than in previous election cycles, given Hollywood’s recent political overextensions.  

Which brings us to tone. As anyone who watched the debates will tell you, while Carly Fiorina generally gave more on-topic, direct and disciplined answers than Boxer, she also came off as hard-nosed and a little callous. To be sure, this approach can win in any number of areas in California, but one place it absolutely cannot win is Hollywood, where callousness, brutal realism and discipline are the stuff of a thousand antagonists in a thousand greenlit screenplays. In a state that is entranced by emotions-based politicking, Fiorina can easily come off as the heartless corporate bad girl, while Boxer reminds everyone of the inspirational feminist studies professor they had in college. If Fiorina were a more moderate Republican, this difficulty would be softened, but her conservatism only contributes to the image, which means that while she could easily win large swaths of California voters by appealing to their heads, that’s no guarantee of victory in a state that votes, by-and-large, with its heart. And if you don’t believe that, look at how much spending California does on ballot initiatives that are marketed on a feel-good basis.  

Finally, there’s the issue of negativity. Despite her first two ridiculously over-the-top negative ads, Fiorina has done her best to run a mostly impersonal, generally positive campaign. She’s a conservative running in an era that should favor conservatives, with a sleek campaign that beat a more moderate rival named Tom Campbell.  

Switch the gender of those pronouns and you’ve got Bruce Herschensohn, the man who lost to then-Representative Barbara Boxer in 1992, igniting Barbara Boxer’s entire career. Herschensohn was beaten by the nasty October surprise of all October surprises – a revelation that he’d attended a strip club, undercutting his socially conservative bona fides. No one could accuse Fiorina of this, but given Boxer’s prodigious skill at digging up dirt on strong opponents, Fiorina cannot afford to count her chickens before they hatch. Moreover, the stronger Fiorina gets in the polls, the more an October surprise would dazzle a complacent campaign staff, which would explain Boxer not dropping the bomb sooner, and allowing Fiorina the opportunity to do damage control.  

And make no mistake – Barbara Boxer would do just that if she got the chance. But, writing the junior Senator from California off is a fatal mistake, and anyone who does it deserves a nasty surprise. This election isn’t won or lost yet, not by a long shot.