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Can Carly Fiorina Save Ted Cruz’s Candidacy?

In a special politics chat, we unpack the news that Ted Cruz has decided to name a vice presidential pick. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Emergency Slack chat time! Ted Cruz announced today that Carly Fiorina would be his pick for vice president should he win the Republican nomination. Let’s get a quick round of first takes: What was your initial reaction to this move?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): My initial reaction — how big was Fiorina’s base of support to begin with? Is she actually that exciting? She had a moment in September 2015, after the first couple of debates, but didn’t garner much support otherwise:


That said, she might get GOP women/people who are frustrated with the Trump shenaniganism excited to turn out.

julia.azari (Julia Azari, associate political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I mean, if this were a normal year, Fiorina would make some sense as a Cruz running mate. She fits the outsider bill, she’s had some nice moments in the debates, and she’s socially conservative.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I dunno. I don’t think Fiorina is a Richard Schweiker — Ronald Reagan’s VP pick in advance of the 1976 convention — by which I mean, there’s not any obvious way in which she widens Cruz’s coalition or any obvious constituency she appeals to. Schweiker, by contrast, gave Reagan some credibility with moderates and suggested that he was trying to unify the party.

clare.malone: Fiorina was among the first people to take Trump on in debates, given that he basically called her ugly. She’s sort of the personification of the #NeverTrump movement. Fiorina was #NeverTrump before there was #NeverTrump. So Cruz is basically counting on that being a thing right now for certain segments of the Republican electorate.

natesilver: That’s true. She’s effective on the attack and good at debates, two things that would be important if she became an actual VP pick instead of some weird game-y change-y one.

julia.azari: So other than the gender angle, I don’t think this is totally about Trump. This is about attention in the news cycle — although that’s a good point about the debates. One more theory: Is this Cruz’s announcement that he’s running in the general election one way or another?

micah: Interesting!

clare.malone: It’s certainly a way for him to continue with the “I’m more prepared for this challenge than anyone else in the field” tack; he had better ground game, delegate game, mobile data game. Now he has better VP game. Or at least existing VP game.

natesilver: I mean … if Cruz won the nomination and Fiorina was on his short list, nobody would say it was ridiculous. She has the strengths mentioned above, plus she has more or less conventionally conservative positions, meaning that she wouldn’t offend anyone. She’s at least semi-vetted. On the other hand, she has no experience in elected office, and her tenure at Hewlett-Packard was “mixed,” by which I mean not good.

But as a media conversation-changer — which, as Julia says, is probably what this is about in the near term — I don’t know if she’s that effective. Though let me protest here that the media has a big double standard for covering the candidates. If Trump did the same thing after losing Wisconsin, it would be huge news, blowing every story out of the water, and the consensus wouldn’t be so sarcastic about it or call it “desperate.”

micah: But let’s talk about Fiorina specifically for a moment: Is she popular among Republicans? Does she help Cruz in Indiana or California?

clare.malone: Well, she’s sort of … not that splashy by the numbers. This is from a Morning Consult survey right after Iowa:

MCI_160204_ID1_11NET_Analyze_Advanced_2016-04-27 (1)

I suppose California = home field advantage for her, but also that failed Senate bid might leave people in her home state with lingering feelings that aren’t all that fuzzy.

natesilver: I guess the California thing is a plus. But it’s not like she’s built up all that much loyalty there. She’s never held elected office, and her reputation as an H-P exec is … what’s that word again? … mixed.

micah: But she’ll be very effective going after Trump, right? And she brings “real world business experience” to the Cruz table.

clare.malone: She’s certainly a pugilist when it comes to Trump!

natesilver: I don’t know if that Morning Consult data is representative. Gallup and most other places had her with reasonably good favorability ratings among Republicans:


But separately, it’s amazing how few people have gone after Trump and articulated the case against him. Fiorina has the virtue of standing up for herself and not being as cowardly as most of the other Republicans who ran this year.

micah: OK, let’s go back to how this fits in with Cruz’s overall prospects. First, Julia, this is unusual right? Has a trailing candidate with a small chance of winning the nomination ever named a VP pick before?

julia.azari: Not that I know of.

clare.malone: What’s the general bump that candidates get after they name a VP?

julia.azari: It’s hard to distinguish from the convention bump, because that’s usually when the VP is picked, though not in the last couple of cycles.

natesilver: This would have been better as part of a broader, moral case against Trump as the nominee, one Cruz and the GOP should have done a better job of building for months. The Cruz campaign excels at tactics but is middling on strategy. This will “change the conversation,” I guess, but it’s less clear how it helps them win the nomination.

micah: So it seems like everyone is pretty skeptical this will have much of an effect?

Harry is on a plane right now, but if he were here, he might say, “Cruz had to do something! He’s losing.”

clare.malone: I mean, yeah, he totally had to do something — you can’t fault him for doing this. It just might not be enough. I think at this point, it’s people voting against Trump, not for a candidate; Fiorina’s a reliable choice in a pinch.

natesilver: When you weigh the pluses and minuses of a desperation move, do you account for the minus of it appearing to be a desperation move?

micah: I think so, yes. To me, the biggest minus here might be that this makes a Cruz-Kasich unity ticket — which I think really could have an effect — less likely.

clare.malone: Less likely = not gonna happen.

micah: Yeah.

natesilver: But look, where I think it actually pays off for Cruz is if he wins Indiana. That would make Fiorina look like a winner in the media’s eyes — maybe wrongly — and she might start to get some coverage for her attacks on Trump. Plus, she could be helpful at the margin in California. I don’t particularly think it will help him win Indiana, though.

julia.azari: So VP selections have taken on this symbolic significance, and John McCain did experience a bump after picking Sarah Palin in 2008. But there’s not a ton of evidence that they make a huge difference. However, they’re usually done, you know, after the primary is over. So this is a bit of a wild card.

micah: Yeah, this is so unusual that isn’t it possible that naming a VP during the primaries is secretly a genius move? Maybe Republicans will simply feel like they’re getting more bang for their vote. Normally, it’s nominee/veep vs. nominee/veep, but this is two vs. one.

clare.malone: This year is so weird that it almost doesn’t strike me as that odd. It basically fits the oddity pattern of 2016.

natesilver: I don’t think Fiorina is a big enough name to weigh heavily into voters’ calculation. To me, there’s not anything inherently wrong with naming a VP before the convention, however. It gives voters more information while (some of them) still have a vote — what’s wrong with that?

julia.azari: To argue the other side, it’s behavior more typical of a nominee. Do political norms mean nothing to us anymore? I suppose not. We could also view it in the context of the failed Cruz-Kasich pact. Minor candidates attempt to coordinate, way too late!

clare.malone: I think one of the reasons why it’s not all that exciting is because she was just in the race, but as a bit player, not a full-blown entity. Mitt Romney naming Paul Ryan as his VP was energizing because the guy was a young star, etc., etc. This just sort of feels … slap-dash practical, if that can be a thing; Cruz proves that he can exhibit organization and leadership in the midst of a melee.

natesilver: It also reduces Cruz’s flexibility at the convention, although I suppose he could cast Fiorina aside as the VP pick if he needed to broker a deal with Kasich or something. It’s technically the delegates who decide the VP at the convention anyway, not the nominee — and all of them are unbound on the first ballot in making that pick.

clare.malone: omg more delegate drama.

natesilver: There’s a weird universe where you could end up with a Trump-Fiorina ticket!

clare.malone: Convention fan fiction.

micah: Clare, let’s start a weekly column looking at the delegates’ considerations on the VP selection.

clare.malone: ummmmmm. Please, God, make it stop.

julia.azari: I was hoping that you’d ask me to write a weekly column on convention fan fiction. I have a pretty sweet idea where Reince Priebus is a werewolf and Paul Ryan is a vampire.


clare.malone: Not enough poetry in our lives. Thanks, Chris.

julia.azari: One more thought: In addition to trying to grab delegates from Trump, to the extent there is a mainstream Republican Party story in 2016, it is one of trying to recapture some kind of narrative about the meaning of the party’s ideas, election results, the candidate choices, etc. This strikes me as an attempt to do that, although it’s subject to many interpretations — political outsider/business, woman on the ticket, Cruz acts decisively, etc.

micah: Yeah, that’s interesting. Maybe this marks the beginning of more of that “moral” case against Trump we talked about being made. Even if it is too late.

julia.azari: Yeah, like one of the things that has been interesting is the two strains of argument against Trump: His remarks are beyond the pale, and also he’s not a principled conservative.

natesilver: My contract requires me to complain one more time about how Trump-centric the media coverage has become. It’s actually become more Trump- centric as the campaign has gone along. While Trump could command a 13-person roundtable on CNN by inadvertently farting during a press conference, Cruz has to do something actually newsworthy — and risky and “desperate” — to get the same treatment.

clare.malone: To Nate’s point, it was just amazing to watch MSNBC last night, anchored by Brian Williams, cut away from most of the candidate speeches but just hang onto Trump’s forever and ever. It hits you over and over again. In a lot of ways, you can’t blame Cruz for wanting to wrest our attention away for a media moment or two.

micah: This encapsulates everything:

clare.malone: “Bestows”

micah: 2016!!! Yay!

OK, final thoughts?

clare.malone: Only the next few days will tell if this gambit works; watch cable, people — if Carly’s getting airtime, then it’s working, I suppose. Great metric.

julia.azari: This is shocking, but not surprising. It violates norms but sort of makes sense from a strategic perspective.

natesilver: I’m agnostic on this move, but Fiorina’s ability to rattle Trump is not to be underrated and one of the bigger potential benefits.

Arguably, last night proved that Trump’s erratic behavior had hurt him with GOP voters and prevented him from consolidating the field as front-runners normally do. If he retweets one sexist meme about Fiorina, it could start the cycle all over again. Works best if Fiorina just continually rips the shit out of Trump for the next seven days instead of being placed into a deep freezer somewhere and thawed out once every few weeks like Chris Christie.

micah: OK, I think Harry just got wifi on his plane, so let’s give him the final word.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I have no clue what the heck has been said in this chat, but this move stinks of desperation. I can smell it from up here at 30,000 feet. Cruz is doing it only because he is losing in California and Indiana. Then again, if you’re failing, I guess throwing a Hail Mary is called for.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.