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What Fiorina Has In Common With Palin And Ferraro (Other Than Gender)

Ted Cruz picked Carly Fiorina as his running mate on Wednesday. There are lots of reasons that Cruz might have made this unconventional choice — to announce a running mate a day after getting swept in five primaries and while he has little chance at the Republican nomination. Media attention is the most obvious one (you know, some media people are dropping everything to write articles about the move). Donald Trump has been a master of dominating the news cycle, thanks largely to outrageous comments and unconventional campaign moves, and perhaps Cruz would like to try his hand at that approach.

But as much as Cruz’s move defies campaign convention, it fits perfectly into a brief but depressing tradition: choosing a female running mate as a desperation move. In the context of 2016, it makes a certain kind of sense. Trump’s remarks last night about gender have attracted a lot of negative attention – and those comments pale in comparison to remarks he’s made in the past, both before and after he announced this year’s presidential bid. And, of course, Hillary Clinton’s line from her victory speech last night — “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!” — has been splashed across national headlines. Gender is likely to be a central issue in this campaign.

But women have seldom appeared on major-party presidential tickets. VP possibilities have been rumored for Jeanne Shaheen (2000), Elizabeth Dole (1988), Hillary Clinton (2008), and Kelly Ayotte (2012), but only two women have been on the ticket: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. These two candidates, and their presidential running mates, Walter Mondale and John McCain, respectively, might appear to have little in common. But the circumstances of Ferraro’s and Palin’s selections have one thing in common with Fiorina’s: electoral desperation.

Here’s an overview of the political standing of the presidential candidate each time a woman has been selected:

  • Mondale — Polling under 45 percent for pretty much the entire summer of 1984 leading up to the convention; 38 percent polling average two weeks before the convention.1
  • McCain — 47 percent polling average two weeks before the convention; the RealClearPolitics average had McCain in the low 40s through August 2008.
  • Cruz — This gets interesting, of course. He’s polling at 43 percent in a matchup against Clinton, a number still to be approached with extreme caution, and his average in national Republican nomination polls is 28 percent, compared with 43 percent for Trump.

Mondale was challenging a relatively popular incumbent in 1984, and Ronald Reagan eventually crushed him in a landslide. In the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention, Mondale was trailing badly in the polls. His campaign viewed selecting a woman — or a minority politician — as a possible strategy to secure support in the party base.

McCain’s status in the polls was less dismal than Mondale’s, and he was running in a race without an incumbent president, but late in the summer of 2008, George W. Bush’s popularity was tanking, with approval ratings hovering around 30 percent. This didn’t do much for McCain as the Republican looking to succeed Bush. And while then-Sen. Obama’s lead in the polls wasn’t necessarily landslide magnitude, it was consistent throughout the summer. McCain’s advisers reportedly felt they needed a “game changer” in their VP.

Ferraro and Palin were both unconventional selections beyond their gender. Both were relatively unknown national politicians: Ferraro was a third-term Democratic representative known for her tough stances on crime and her appeal to a conservative district in New York. Palin, a first-term governor from Alaska who had won in a messy three-way race after serving as mayor in tiny Wasilla, was a new face to all but the most obsessive political junkies.

In this sense, Fiorina is both a more conventional choice than the other two and a less conventional one. Her own bid for the Republican nomination this year means that she’s appeared in national debates and had some… interesting videos. In this sense, she’s much more a national figure than Ferraro or Palin ever was. On the other hand, her business background and failed 2010 Senate campaign mean that she’s got even less actual political experience.

Three does not make a trend, but putting women on the ticket is starting to look like a tradition for candidates who want to attract some attention and change the trajectory of their race. It’s not exactly tokenism, but it may not do much to advance women in politics, either.


  1. For 1984 and 2008, the trial heat data here is from “The Timeline of Presidential Elections,” by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Raw data generously supplied to me by the authors.

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.”