What happened to Carly Fiorina's presidential campaign?

Carly Fiorina's crisp, confident performance in the last GOP debate made her a rising star. But her latest poll numbers, at first glance, don't look good.

Mike Stone/Reuters
US Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the North Texas Presidential Forum hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, on Sunday.

What’s happened to Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign? She was supposed to be a Republican rising star, propelled upward by her crisp dissection of Donald Trump in the last GOP debate. But her latest poll numbers, at first glance, look awful.

Over the past month, she’s dropped from 9 to 5 percent in Fox News surveys, for instance. She’s gone from 11 to 7 percent in NBC News polls.

Worst of all, she’s cratered in CNN/ORC’s just-released numbers, plummeting from 15 percent in mid-September to 4 percent today.

Meanwhile, her fellow nonpolitical outsiders, Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, have stabilized in the polls and even crept upward. All this has caused some pundits to declare that Ms. Fiorina’s campaign is kaput.

“Carly Fiorina’s moment in the spotlight seems to have already passed,” writes The Week’s Becca Stanek.

Well, that might be right. Fiorina may be following the classic path of a little-known candidate, described by political scientists as a cycle of discovery, scrutiny, and decline.

First, voters are excited to stumble upon a new face they like. Think Herman Cain in 2012. That person rises quickly in the polls, while the news media scramble to discover all they can about the individual. They print and broadcast this, and not all of it is flattering. Disappointed voters then move on, looking for their next political crush.

This template might explain Fiorina’s drop. Following her debate performance on Sept. 16, she rose from a blip in the polls to about 12 percent in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys. The rise was rapid – voters obviously responded to her verbal dexterity and air of stage command.

Then the scrutiny phase began. And for Fiorina, this meant lots of stories about her tenure as head of Hewlett-Packard, during which the iconic firm lost half its market value, and she fired more than 30,000 workers.

Fiorina insists that she was shaking up a firm otherwise destined to fail. But most voters didn’t know about her CEO history, and they may have backed away from her regardless.

Fiorina was also caught up in a discussion about abortion at the time of her debate rise. Her passionate criticism of Planned Parenthood thrilled many conservative voters. But Democrats and some fact-checkers questioned whether her description of a video that alleged abuses on the part of the group was accurate.

For Fiorina, the problem might not have been this controversy per se, but the fact that it chewed up time and attention she might better have spent on other things.

“Instead of using her moment in the spotlight to discuss a range of issues and further introduce herself to voters, she ... trained her focus on Planned Parenthood,” writes CNN’s Sara Murray.

But here’s the bottom line: The “decline” part of the new candidate cycle does not have to be permanent. Some hopefuls survive the scrutiny phase, take some lumps, and then rise again. That’s the nature of a campaign.

More debates are coming. Fiorina might profit by that exposure. And this time, she’s got plenty of money to capitalize on any bump: She raised almost $7 million during the third quarter of 2015, a substantial improvement over her previous inflow.

She’s now got about $5.5 million cash on hand. Trump might need to practice his debate skills. For the time being, Fiorina isn’t going anywhere.

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