Should Carly Fiorina Go All In to Qualify for the First String Reagan Library Debate in September?

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tags: election 2016, Carly Fiorina

Mark Nevin, an assistant professor of History at Ohio University Lancaster, is writing a book on the Nixon presidency and the politics of public opinion polling.

No doubt Carly Fiorina was the big winner of the first Republican debate in Cleveland. Lost among the better known and better financed contenders in the unprecedented seventeen-person GOP presidential field, the former head of Hewlett-Packard was barely registering in the polls prior to the debate. But her strong performance—pundits and debate watchers alike declared her the winner—has infused her struggling campaign with new life and given her a much needed boost in the polls.

However, Fiorina could be doing even better. Because of her low poll numbers—she was the preferred nominee of only about one percent of Republican voters before the debate—Fiorina did not qualify for the main event with the top candidates and was relegated to the “happy hour debate” with the other also-rans earlier in the evening. So while a record 24 million Americans watched Donald Trump and the other leading GOP contenders spar in prime time, a much smaller audience saw Fiorina wipe the floor with the other longshot candidates. Had she performed as well among the first team in Cleveland, many more Americans would have witnessed it and presumably she would now be the favorite of more than 5 percent of GOP voters.

If Fiorina had received a bigger boost in the polls, her chances of qualifying for the main event at the next debate, which will be hosted by CNN and held September 16 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, would be much better. Like Fox News, the host of the first debate, CNN will hold two debates, with the top ten candidates in the polls taking part in one debate and the candidates who poll at least one percent in the other. Although Fiorina’s recent surge in the polls improves her odds, qualifying is still an uphill battle. CNN will select the ten candidates for its top-tier debate based on polls from mid-July through September 10. This means that several polls that will factor into CNN’s calculation have already been released, including those that put Fiorina on the undercard in Cleveland. Fiorina’s current five percent rating places her seventh in the polls, but there are four other candidates within two points. Taking all this into account, she needs to continue to keep climbing in the polls over the next month to qualify. How could she accomplish that?

One strategy would be to go all in and mount a national advertising campaign. Her goal would be to identify and target Republican voters across the nation who would be receptive to her appeals and thus most likely to express support for her when questioned by pollsters. Money would be a problem, however. A national advertising campaign would be extremely costly and Fiorina has had trouble raising money. As of the end of July, she had raised only $5.2 million, far less than many of her rivals. Fiorina could dip into her own fortune (estimated between $30-120 million). But should she open her checkbook?

It might seem as though history can be no guide here. After all, polls have never played such a crucial role in determining the field for presidential debates. But her gamble would not be unprecedented. In fact, she would be following in the footsteps of another Republican multi-millionaire. In 1968, Nelson Rockefeller, a late entrant into the GOP presidential race, launched a national advertising blitz several weeks before the party convention in Miami with the goal of producing poll results showing he, and not front-runner Richard Nixon, was the most electable candidate and thus worthy of the nomination. In the end, Rockefeller failed to deliver the polls, and Nixon went on to win the nomination. An examination of Rockefeller’s bold, but ultimately unsuccessful, gambit should serve as a cautionary tale for Fiorina, or any other Republican candidate who might be considering going all in to make the first team for the next debate or another down the road.


After failing to win the Republican nomination for president in 1960 and 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller could not make up his mind whether to try again. Out of favor with the ascendant conservative faction of the party and still smarting from his previous defeats, Rockefeller, after winning reelection in 1966, endorsed Michigan Governor George Romney for president. But Rockefeller also hinted, time and time again, that he might run. After Romney dropped out of the race prior to the New Hampshire primary in January there was considerable speculation that Rockefeller would soon become an official candidate. Still, Rockefeller demurred. He had little support among state and local Republican leaders or the GOP rank-and-file.

Rockefeller changed his mind, however, after President Lyndon Johnson announced that he was withdrawing from the race to concentrate on achieving peace in Vietnam. Johnson’s withdrawal made Rockefeller think that the Republican nominee, who would now not have to face a sitting president, stood a good chance of winning the White House and that he, and not Nixon, would be the party’s strongest candidate against Robert Kennedy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the leading Democratic contenders. Although Nixon won the New Hampshire primary, and would go on to win several more before the convention, he was saddled with the image of a loser for having lost his last two campaigns—the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 race for California governor. Nixon’s victories in the primaries somewhat dispelled this image, but questions about his electability remained. If, however, Rockefeller could persuade Republican delegates that he could win in the general election, and Nixon could not, then they might switch their allegiance.

The problem was that by the time Rockefeller finally threw his hat into the ring on April 30 it was too late to enter the GOP primaries. He needed another way to prove his electability to delegates. Rockefeller turned to the polls. The idea was to generate polls showing that only he was popular enough to win the general election. Rockefeller and his advisors bargained that Republican delegates, desperate to reclaim the White House after eight years of Democratic control, would drop Nixon and back Rockefeller if polls indicated he could defeat Kennedy or Humphrey and Nixon could not. Although polls showed Nixon beating the leading Democratic hopefuls, Rockefeller had reason to believe he could dislodge him. Unlike Nixon, Rockefeller was a liberal Republican who had an impressive track record in New York of winning votes from Democrats, independents, and Republicans. But to produce polls showing that he was the most electable GOP presidential candidate he had to attract voters from all across the nation, and he had less than three months before the convention to do it.

To raise his poll numbers, Rockefeller launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. “We stand or fall on public opinion,” declared Rockefeller advisor Leonard Hall. “Rockefeller is campaigning as though the whole country were one big primary, with the results to be made known through the polls on or about August 1.” The six-week blitz, which ran from mid-June through the end of July, was intended to peak as workers from the Gallup Poll, the leading poll of the day, were in the field conducting interviews for the last poll to be published before the convention began on August 5th. The advertising campaign featured 42 television spots per week on 100 stations in 30 cities and weekly full-page ads in 54 newspapers in 40 cities. The spots and ads were concentrated in 14 states, which collectively had 60 percent of the nation’s population, and several key media markets, with large voting groups who, according to Rockefeller’s advertising agency, were “potentially favorable to and therefore moveable by clear and dramatic statements of the Governor’s position on vital issues.” Except for Texas, Rockefeller ignored the South, focusing on the more populous and liberal Northern states and California. All told, Rockefeller spent about $4.5 million (almost $31 million in today’s dollars) on the media campaign, with much of the money coming from Rockefeller and his family.

Despite the multimillion dollar advertising campaign, Rockefeller ultimately failed to produce polls clearly showing him to be the strongest candidate against Hubert Humphrey, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee (Robert Kennedy having been assassinated). A few days before the Republican convention was set to begin, Gallup released its final pre-convention poll which showed Nixon leading Humphrey 40 to 38 percent (with third-party candidate George Wallace at 16 and 6 undecided) and Rockefeller only tied with Humphrey 36 to 36 percent (Wallace 27 and undecided 7). Governor John Chaffee of Rhode Island, a Rockefeller supporter, acknowledged that the poll results were “very discouraging . . . very bad news.” Rockefeller supporters had held out hope that the polls were turning in their favor. In late July, the Harris Poll, the other major poll at the time, had shown him leading Humphrey 40 to 34 percent and Nixon trailing Humphrey 36 to 41 percent.

When the Harris Poll released its final pre-convention poll three days later showing Rockefeller leading Humphrey and Nixon trailing him, Rockefeller forces mounted a last ditch effort to revive his candidacy. Rockefeller staffers distributed summaries of the Harris Poll to all delegates and met with reporters to maximize publicity for the Harris results and discredit the Gallup findings. Bowing to pressure to explain the apparent discrepancy in their findings, Harris and Gallup took the extraordinary step of issuing a joint statement claiming that the two polls, when properly analyzed, actually showed Rockefeller had “now moved to an open lead” over Nixon.

But in the end, it did not matter. To have any chance of swaying delegates to his side, Rockefeller needed the polls to clearly and conclusively show that only he, and not Nixon, could defeat Humphrey. When the polls failed to do that, Rockefeller’s candidacy was doomed. When Republican delegates finally voted for their presidential candidate, they overwhelmingly chose Nixon (692 votes) over Rockefeller (277 votes) on the first ballot.

Rockefeller’s failed attempt to pump up his poll numbers in order to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from Nixon illustrates how difficult it would be for Fiorina to try to raise her standing in the polls to qualify for the main event at the Reagan Library. Polls are unpredictable and so are other candidates. If Fiorina did make a conspicuous effort, like Rockefeller, to take on the polls, other candidates who are also in danger of missing the main debate at the Reagan Library might launch their own advertising campaigns. But before Fiorina or another Republican presidential candidate decides to go all in to qualify for a debate they would do well to consider Rockefeller’s example.

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