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Conservative Activists And Leaders Attend The Iowa Freedom Summit
Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., during the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 24, 2015.  Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Carly Fiorina's Anecdotal Campaign

Mar 25, 2015

If you want to hear about health care, Carly Fiorina will talk about her fight with breast cancer. If you want to know about the economy, she'll talk about working as a secretary in a small real-estate firm. If you want to learn about ISIS, she'll even cite her degree in medieval history.

It seems that Fiorina has a personal anecdote for just about every policy question.

As she prepares to join the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has put together a well-polished set of personal stories for use on the stump. In recent weeks, she's used the same anecdotes in speeches to very different audiences at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a conservative women's organization and a group of investors.

To be fair, every presidential candidate relies on stock anecdotes about themselves. As he launched his campaign Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talked at length about his dad fleeing from Cuba and his wife selling bread in elementary school.

But as one of the only candidates with no prior political experience (former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is the other), Fiorina is unusually dependent on personal stories. Without a track record of votes, bills or executive actions to point to and, like many candidates at this stage, without a well-developed policy playbook, she has only her own history.

During an event on leadership and technology in Virginia Wednesday morning, she was asked by a member of the audience about innovation in government. Her response: health care.

“I’m a cancer survivor," she said. "So I understand how important it is to make sure that people can get care despite pre-existing conditions or that people have access to quality affordable health care regardless of their circumstances.”

At a conference on women and leadership in Virginia Saturday, she talked about how social welfare programs have created a "web of dependence" for people who need help.

“Every one of us needs a helping hand sometimes," she said. "When I battled cancer, I needed many helping hands. When my husband Frank and I lost our younger daughter Lori from the demons of addiction, we counted on the kindness of strangers.”

One of Fiorina’s favorite all-purpose anecdotes is the fact that she graduated from Stanford with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. It never fails to draw chuckles from the crowd when she brings it up, which she does, often.

She used it to knock President Obama’s comments on ISIS during her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): “I was fortunate enough to enroll in Stanford University where I would earn a degree in medieval history and philosophy. All dressed up and nowhere to go. That degree has come in handy recently since our President, he’s talking about the Crusades. Yes Mr. President, ISIS indeed wants to drive the whole world back to the Middle Ages, but the rest of us moved on about 800 years ago.”

Other times, she uses her liberal arts degree to talk about education policy. At the event Wednesday, Fiorina was asked about whether education should be more vocational. She said, “While I joke that my medieval history and philosophy degree prepared me not for the job market, I must tell you it did prepare me for life… I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life… I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art.”

Sometimes she segues her degree into a discussion of small businesses. After graduation, she felt unprepared for the job market, so she tried law school. She hated it, dropped out after one semester and got a job as a secretary to pay the bills. “I filed and answered the phones for a little nine-person real estate firm,” she said at CPAC. “Most Americans get their start the way I did: in a small business. The dry cleaners, the coffee shops, the hairdressers and the real estate firms of American Main Street create most of our new jobs and employ half of our people. So if we want more jobs, we need more small businesses.”

Anna Epstein, press secretary at Fiorina’s Unlocking Potential Project, says these stories are how Fiorina gets through to the audience.

“Carly has always related to people at a personal level,” Epstein said. “Like all of us, her experiences shape her world view. People relate to story telling more easily than they relate to numbers and figures.”

Fiorina hasn't said exactly when she'll announce a run for the White House, but whenever it is, you can be sure she'll tell some of these anecdotes in her speech.

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