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Fiorina unable to capitalize on Boxer's weaknesses

by Alan Markow, published

In a night of Republican dominance, Barbara Boxer has held her own in California.  She was ripe for defeat, but the Republicans chose a candidate who showed too little heart for the California lifestyle, just as she had shown too little heart for the employees of Hewlett Packard and for the H-P Way when she was that company's CEO as some have argued. 

The H-P way was described by BusinessWeek as:

      " egalitarian, decentralized system …. The essence of the idea, radical at the time, was that employees' brainpower was the company's most important resource." 

The BusinessWeek story went on to describe how founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard created:

     "one of the first all-company profit-sharing plans... gave shares to all employees... were among the first to offer tuition assistance, flex time, and job sharing... Today, the behavior of the two founders remains a benchmark for business..." 

Carly Fiorina swooped into H-P as CEO just a few years after the death of Packard, and just three years preceding the death of Hewlett.  She took ruthless actions that she believes righted the company and positioned it for success.  But she failed to win the hearts and minds of H-P employees as well as the Hewlett and Packard families, who soured on her leadership quickly and even spoke out against her during her Senatorial bid. 

Fiorina's take-no-prisoners campaign grated on many Californians' sensibilities – even as the rest of the country embraced candidates with similarly rigid opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.  The fact that she came close to un-seating Boxer highlights the weak state of the incumbent's support.  Carly was never able to break into the lead or tighten the race beyond a four or five point margin.  Boxer, on the other hand, made no major mistakes and never provided Fiorina the extra boost that might have changed the game. 

There are a couple of lessons from this year's Senatorial result.  First, you can never count out Barbara Boxer.  Second, Californians are unimpressed with a business resume when it comes to electing politicians.  Hollywood stars such as Reagan and Schwartzenegger are more likely to succeed than a business superstar such as Fiorina or Whitman.  Fiorina is cool-headed and direct, but her inability to move people emotionally weakened her chances. 

Business candidates rely on facts and statistics.  Political pros (and entertainers) understand the value of anecdotes.  Back in 1992, Ross Perot made a major dent in the polls with his charts and graphs on the budget deficit.  At one point, Perot led the race with 39 percent of the vote, but he wound up polling 19 percent (after pulling out of the race at one time) – an excellent showing for a third party candidate. Unlike other candidates from the business world, Perot was engaging, fervent and focused on a single issue -- deficit spending. His business background lent credibility to his argument. 

On the other hand, Carly paid more attention to social issues and tried to make herself the "values" candidate.  Her business background lent no gravitas to her arguments.  A little softening of her image might have helped, as would a softening of her positions.  All told, this was not a good year for business candidates in California.  And the Republicans missed a genuine opportunity to grab one of California's prized Senate seats.

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