Why Carly's Night Was Even Bigger Than You Think

S. E. Cupp
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Posted: Sep 18, 2015 1:54 PM
Why Carly's Night Was Even Bigger Than You Think

In the days leading up to the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election, both President Obama's and GOP challenger Mitt Romney's campaigns set about to do one very important thing: lower expectations.

Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki was downright apologetic, a week before the candidates even touched down in Denver:

"He has had to balance the management of world events, governing, time out campaigning," she said of the president. "He'll have less time than we anticipated to sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers."

For Romney's part, going up against the guy who brought the 2004 Democratic National Convention to its feet and launched his warp-speed road to the White House clearly made him nervous:

"President Obama is a universally acclaimed public speaker," Romney senior adviser Beth Myers warned supporters, "and has substantial debate experience under his belt."

In the end, we all remember what happened:

"Barack Obama almost threw his presidency away," explained The New Republic's Jonathan Alter -- notably, a liberal. "His disdain for the requirements of politics, his ill-disguised contempt for his opponents, and his complacent cockiness caught up to him in a listless and bewildering debate performance in front of 67 million people."

Obviously, it didn't, in fact, cost him a second term. But it just goes to show that even with the lowest of expectations, a bad debate performance can be nearly ruinous.

So what Carly Fiorina managed to do on Wednesday night at the CNN debate was nothing short of remarkable, not just because she turned in a terrific, pitch-perfect performance, but because she did it in spite of Everest-like expectations.

Remember how she got here. From May to July, Fiorina was polling at a mere 1 percent in the CNN/ORC poll. After a great Aug. 6 performance in the undercard Fox debate, she still only shot up to 5 percent. And a month later, she was down to 3 percent.

Still, she demanded to be on the main stage of the next debate, even though CNN's debate rules required her to be among the top 10 candidates in an average of national polls.

In numerous interviews and through social media, the Fiorina campaign launched a side-campaign of sorts, complaining loudly that the party was trying to keep her sidelined, a claim that actually defies logic and good politics. Republicans benefit from having a strong woman in the race to take on Hillary Clinton, and for as long as possible.

Nevertheless, her deputy campaign manager wrote: "If the RNC won't tell CNN to treat post-debate polling consistently with pre-debate polling, they are putting their thumb on the scale and choosing to favor candidates with higher polling for three weeks in July over candidates with measurable momentum in August and September."

I'll spare you the arcana of the polling machinations, but CNN eventually changed its rules after insisting it could not, a move that ended up allowing Carly -- and only Carly -- to get her wish and graduate from the kids' table to the big leagues.

This was the atmosphere in which Fiorina was entering the night -- the 11th candidate, the only newcomer, the only woman, the farm team starter who demanded a shot at the big show. If this didn't create unreasonably high expectations, nothing else would. She asked for it -- now she had to prove she deserved it.

When I talked to the campaign days before the debate, the mood was remarkably calm. They weren't concerned about high expectations. They knew viewers would like what they saw. Carly was prepared. She was even playing a lot of solitaire on her iPhone to relax and focus, they said.

Like the CNN debate demand, this too was a dangerous gamble. If she didn't have a great -- not just good -- night, they risk looking cavalier and overly cocky.

But not only did she earn her place on that stage, showing CNN, the RNC, the other candidates and voters that she deserved to compete there, she won the night, turning in a near-perfect performance alongside career politicians, a television-savvy showman and three sitting governors.

She was serious, controlled, quick on her feet, substantive, steady, assertive, passionate and unflappable, all of which are hard in the easiest of circumstances let alone when 23 million eyes are on you.

In contrast, the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, known for his steady hands and supposedly preternatural brilliance, barely managed to make sense. The former governor, Jeb Bush, who has enjoyed a unique proximity to presidential politics, still got tripped up defending his own positions. And Donald Trump, the cartoonishly self-assured frontrunner, seemed to disappear halfway through it.

To be sure, the road ahead for Fiorina will be long and tough. She will endure a kind of scrutiny she has never faced. But if Wednesday night proved anything, it was that Carly Fiorina defies expectations -- she beats them.