Top CEO business women Carla Fiorina and Meg Whitman both crashed and burned in last week’s midterm elections—Fiorina running for a Senate seat in California and Whitman for the governorship of the same state. What happened? And more broadly, why do stars in the business world so often have difficulty getting elected?
First off, it’s unfortunate that both candidates had to run in California. One need only look to the size of government bureaucracy and the overall bankrupt (morally and economically) status of the state to realize what California voters overwhelmingly prefer. A state doesn’t get that way overnight. Its slow descent into hopelessness is the result of many successive voter choices that have ultimately created an entrenched, self-dependent political culture. The fact that Fiorina and Whitman figured that the majority of Californians would suddenly choose differently was a miscalculation. Government employees voting to cut state spending would mean voting for their boss to lay them off.
But beyond this prima facie miscalculation, business people generally have difficulty translating their professional experience to a political campaign. Rising to the top level in business requires diplomacy, compromise, and reason. These are not the same personalities that resonate in politics—particularly in the context of a campaign. Campaigns suffocate without adequate media coverage—witness Rudy Giuliani in the last presidential primaries. The lack of media coverage gave the impression that he had dropped out of the race long before he actually did. To capture any media attention, politicians have to find a way to break through all the noise generated by the Internet and the 24-hour multi-outlet machine. Sanity and balance won’t achieve that.
A classic example of this phenomenon is Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was seen as so boring and uncharismatic that he had to wait for the opposition to completely implode in scandal before voters would give him a chance. He has turned out to be the paragon of stability during the worldwide economic hurricane, and Canada has benefited from his boring stability.