There is a reason presidential candidates do not usually reveal running mate choices months before the party convention, or before they even secure the nomination: The negatives outweigh the positives.
Those negatives went on instant display Wednesday afternoon, before Ted Cruz even took the stage with his chosen ticket-mate, Carly Fiorina. The twittersphere exploded with every negative that Fiorina’s critics could come up with. There was some enthusiasm, and that increased with the actual announcement. But, social media being what it is, the earliest wave of reaction was from hater trolls unloading on her and Cruz for the pure twisted joy of it.
In tight campaigns, the idea often arises: why not reveal a running mate or even a few cabinet posts, to give a distinct taste of how a candidate’s presidency might go? The answer, especially for Republicans: Because the media and other detractors will instantly savage those names.
Carly Fiorina will now endure three months of grief she would have been spared if Cruz had waited to announce her at the convention in Cleveland. So why do it? Because the Cruz campaign is obviously concerned that his chances of being the nominee may dwindle further if he does not do something to take control of a news cycle currently flush with the details of another burst of Donald Trump successes.
So it is a bold gamble. The hope for Cruz and his supporters is that the Fiorina pick is sufficiently energizing that it leads to a win in Indiana next Tuesday, which will then look like a reward for the early running mate announcement.
There are other strategic advantages: the Cruz/Fiorina partnership invites a revisit to Trump’s most ungallant moment, the “Look at that face!” quote about her from a Rolling Stone profile in September. That episode did not hurt him then, and it’s not likely to inflict much damage now. But if Trump gets one of his moments of campaign-trail Tourette’s and blurts out something equally juvenile about her now, the stakes are far higher.
Cruz is looking for anything to slow the Trump locomotive. Just being a solid conservative may not be enough any more; he needs Trump to slip. But a large field has needed Trump to slip for nearly a year, and it has not happened sufficiently to extinguish his bid.
So here comes Carly. What does she bring?
For starters, a skill set that would be the envy of many campaigns— an agile mind, a formidable communication gift, and a particular plus this year, an outsider’s résumé.
But she also brings a packet of recent sound bites describing why Cruz should not be President. That may be par for the course for a primary season, but the campaign clip vault also contains some moments featuring rivals casting aspersions on the business career she will offer as one of her main recommendations. We’re likely to hear those again, joined with similar critiques from people who just don’t like her.
She will explain repeatedly that her 2005 Hewlett-Packard exit was a mere conflict of philosophies, which actually appears to be true. But that doesn’t mean that her enemies, from Donald Trump to countless Democrats, won’t try to beat her brains in with it.
If the past is a prologue, she will deftly counter any attack against her. She is as articulate and unflappable as the man she has chosen to run with, and the “Cruz/Carly” ticket, as they have chosen to call it, will have many moments of inspiring messaging that will suggest the kind of strength and clarity that would fit well in the White House.
But they have to get the nomination first, and that is a big question mark.
Some are answering the question already. Trump’s Tuesday night sweep sent various talking heads twisting off into yet another snap judgment festival, crowning Trump as the nominee even though his path forward still slants uphill to get to 1,237 before Cleveland. Moments after the Fiorina rollout, Eric Bolling told a Fox News audience that Cruz should follow the examples of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and “bow out with class.”
The greatest possibility is still that neither Trump nor Cruz has this wrapped up before the convention. Once that gavel falls, a wide set of possibilities unfolds, including a wholesale delegate migration from Trump to Cruz on the second and any subsequent ballots.
At some point everyone will learn the most basic lesson of this campaign year: Once you think you know how things are going to go, evidence arises that things will be different.
Indiana will provide some evidence of the Carly effect. Maybe Cruz would win that state without her, even though his state tradeoff deal with John Kasich collapsed in a day under the weight of Kasich’s ego. But if he wins the Hoosier State, she will get some of the credit. They will also clasp hands in victory May 10 in Nebraska. On the last day of primaries June 7, Cruz/Carly will snag winner-take-all Montana and South Dakota, a combined 56 delegates to offset Trump’s win of 51 that day in winner-take-all New Jersey.
So does Carly help Cruz win California? Trump’s lead ranges from 7 to 27 in three polls this month. She is fondly remembered in the state for a noble joust with Barbara Boxer in 2010. California is not Cruz country, but nor does it seem the kind of state where Trump’s northeastern-style domination is set in stone. She may help Cruz grab enough of those 172 delegates to leave him well positioned for a pre-Cleveland search and rescue operation, searching for enough swayable delegates to rescue his nomination hopes.
As she boards the Cruz campaign bus, my mind is a looping reel of images about her: She is a natural communicator in a way that Cruz is not; she is a formidable debater, but her performances earned her polling spikes that vanished as quickly as they appeared; she exhibits a poise that will be needed when Hillary Clinton comes after both of them with one of the dirtiest campaigns we will ever see.
In all, we can see that she has appreciable talent. But it is impossible to know how effectively it will go over in the five-week marathon from Indiana to California.
So what we have this week are the images of her Wednesday afternoon debut. It began with an interminable Cruz speech that had even his fans begging him on Twitter to wrap it up and let her speak. My favorite theory is that Cruz realized in the era of Trump that this was his only chance to actually have news networks cover his remarks live in any state.
For her part, Fiorina was razor-sharp and charming, and a little goofy when she sang a made-up song to Cruz’s daughters. In all, it was a thoroughly endearing performance that added a personal touch to a campaign that strikes some as long on smarts but short on likability.
My gut feeling is that Cruz/Carly will cut an impressive path through the states they visit, and that the net impression will be that this has helped him. But he needs more help than she can offer. Donald Trump will be steamrolling through various stops over the weekend, calling the early, early naming of a running mate an act of desperation.
Cruz is not desperate. His prospects are more than adequate at an open convention. But it is an act of urgency. Cruz needs to be able to claim a momentum shift in his direction, which will be nearly impossible to do if the next headline is a Trump win in Indiana.
So as Carly Fiorina takes to the big stage, it must be a heady moment for her. The stars did not align for her candidacy, but her gifts may contribute to an effort that changes the fate of the Cruz campaign, and thus the history of this election year.