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Fiorina Struggles to Connect With New Hampshire Women

5 minute read

To win the momentum coming out of New Hampshire, if not the primary itself, Republican candidates must appeal to female voters. So why isn’t former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the sole female candidate in the field, taking off?

The women’s vote is key to winning any race in New Hampshire on both sides of the aisle: women generally vote in New Hampshire by more than 10 percentage points more than male voters. With Donald Trump likely to draw the majority of Republican male votes, women are key to winning or placing in the GOP New Hampshire primary next Tuesday.

Other Republican candidates are assiduously courting female voters: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush brought in his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and is attacking Trump for his remarks on women in television ads. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has his wife Pat stumping with him. Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s super PAC put out—and then pulled at the candidate’s request—an ad attacking Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women’s Act.

In such a climate, Fiorina would seem well positioned to advance, or see a surge. She has 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whose support is hotly sought by every GOP presidential wannabe, unsuccessfully called for her inclusion in the debate this Saturday. But Romney’s argument to get her into that debate, that she’s a woman, is 180 degrees from where Fiorina started her campaign. And at every turn, her gender has been a double-edged sword: tripping her up as much as helping her. Such is the tough road for female Republican candidates for any office.

Read More: How Hillary Clinton Is Trying to Avoid Being ‘Shrill’

Fiorina started with a compelling biography: the secretary who rose to become the CEO of one of America’s largest tech companies, HP. She cast her success as coming despite her gender, not because of it. And, at first, she proudly refused to make the case that her candidacy was any different than that of a man’s, in line with Republican distaste for identity politics. Indeed, Fiorina’s best moments on the campaign trail came when she wasn’t talking about being a women or defending her party’s sometimes contorted stances on women’s issues. Her shining debate moments on foreign policy and the economy had her rivals not only agreeing with her, but citing her.

But those moments were few and in between, Fiorina was defined at almost every step by her very womanhood. Whether it was defending her appearance to Donald Trump, or going out on a limb on Planned Parenthood—farther than any of the male candidates—relentlessly comparing herself to Hillary Clinton, and her ultimate embrace of her womanhood with debate statements and web videos celebrating it, Fiorina’s gender kept getting in the way of her campaign.

From the get go, Fiorina cast herself as Clinton’s foil rather than her own person. Her launch video showed Fiorina watching, and mocking, Clinton’s presidential launch. Fiorina capitalized on the fact that she was better positioned to criticize Clinton on a host of issues without coming off as sexist. Her biggest applause line on the campaign trail was: “In your heart of hearts you cannot wait to see me debate Hillary Clinton.”

But Fiorina went overboard on Planned Parenthood, refusing to pull back or stop repeating her comments that the group was “butchering babies and selling their organs,” even long after those allegations were proven untrue. That was a play for social conservative support amongst voters who are leery of working women. In Iowa home schoolers—who make up a large Evangelical voting base in the Hawkeye State—often asked Michele Bachmann, who ran for president in 2012, who was taking care of her kids at home. Fiorina, who never had kids of her own and whose surviving stepdaughter is long grown, didn’t get those questions. But her Planned Parenthood gambit didn’t succeed and Fiorina drew less than 2% of the vote in the caucuses, while her increasingly strident social conservative positions won her no support among what should have been her natural GOP constituency: business and fiscal conservatives.

New Hampshire is a state well used to electing women: in the past five years alone the state has seen a governor, lieutenant governor, the entire congressional delegation and half the State Senate represented by women at one point or another. Unlike Iowa, female voters in New Hampshire are highly independent from male voters, though the state as a whole has a distaste for social conservatism. Fiorina enters New Hampshire polling less than 5%, though she has declared she doggedly will continue all the way to the convention in Cleveland.

In her last debate, Fiorina opened with a plea to female voters about how she, as a woman, would better represent them—a full 180 from her initial reluctance to play the “gender card.” Her flip-flopping won her few friends, with one crass Ted Cruz radio DJ supporter in Iowa accusing her of going “full vagina.” She launched a Buzzfeed video about sexism in the workplace that was popular and mocked Donald Trump repeatedly for his sexist statements.

And her appeal to get on the debate stage in New Hampshire over other also-ran rivals such as former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is purely because she is a woman. But playing directly to women has done less for her than refusing to play to them: her support remains negligible. Fiorina is gambling that if she can break through in New Hampshire, she can surge and gain momentum. Thus far, that play hasn’t caught on.

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