Why Carly Fiorina Is Rising in the Polls (And Why It Matters)

Republican voters are restless. They don’t like the direction of the country. They don’t like politicians. So why not send them a message by casting votes for non-traditional candidates? 

Carly Fiorina is on a roll. After the recent Fox News Republican presidential debates, she has enjoyed a significant bump-up in the polls—to 9 percent in the latest Rasmussen survey; 8 percent in the NBC/Survey Monkey poll; 9 percent in a New Hampshire poll; 7 percent in Iowa. A pollster at Suffolk University named David Paleologos tells the New York Post, “She has broken through….a real boost….She’s put herself in the game.”

What does this mean? And what does it say about the Republican electorate, the state of American politics, and Fiorina herself?

It probably doesn’t mean much, beyond the obvious fact that Fiorina is a very good debater. She doesn’t speak in platitudes or clichés, which is an observation that can’t be applied to some of her rivals in last week’s debates. She uses language that is crisp, bold and piquant. She takes firm, clear stands on issues, including high-voltage issues such as immigration. And she distinguished herself by acknowledging that the Donald Trump phenomenon is not about Donald Trump but about currents of sentiment running through the electorate.

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What her little boomlet says about the Republican electorate isn’t particularly meaningful unless it is combined with two other interesting developments in these early months of the campaign—namely, the Trump phenomenon and the advance in poll numbers enjoyed by neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Neither Trump nor Carson will become president, and neither will Fiorina. But it’s interesting to note that the two men have no political experience at all, and Fiorina’s only political background consisted of a quixotic senatorial run in California against a three-term incumbent—which she lost in something approaching a landslide. In other words, her political career thus far has been a failure.

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But Republican voters are restless. They don’t like the direction of the country. They don’t like politicians. They don’t think the political elites in Washington, Republicans or Democrats, know what they’re doing. So why not send them a message by casting votes for non-traditional candidates with no baggage accumulated through attachments to what is becoming a kind of Washington oligarchy? If you like the state of the country and its path into the future, vote for Jeb Bush. If you don’t, why vote for the junior Bush leaguers in the race? They all seem to be part of the same dysfunctional miasma in Washington. That’s how Fiorina’s stock began to rise. And Carson’s. Trump, being a national figure, already had leveraged this sentiment into head-turning poll numbers.

Eventually, one of the conventional pols will emerge as the party’s standard-bearer, but there are going to be some more surprises and weird developments before that happens. The Republican electorate is in no mood for conventional politics just yet.

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And something similar is going on over in the Democratic Party, where the so-called frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, who has been campaigning as if she has a birthright to the office, seems listless, disengaged, haughty and vulnerable. Meanwhile, big crowds are flocking to see and hear Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who bills himself as a socialist. Again, voters on this side of the aisle are disgusted with conventional politicians and are looking for alternatives. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are likely to embrace a conventional figure eventually, but for now the restlessness of the electorate is palpable.

So it appears that the Fiorina emergence, such as it is, reflects fundamental realities of today’s political landscape more than it reflects any particular political stature of the candidate herself, beyond her crisp rhetorical style and her primary win in the 2010 California senatorial race. Indeed, her most significant claim to stature was her six-year tenure as CEO of tech giant Hewlett-Packard, a job from which she was fired after engineering a mega-merger with Compaq that was widely viewed as a failure.

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