Careful what you wish for.

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GOP's Risky Gamble on Carly Fiorina

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, ran for office once and lost badly. Yet as the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, she is planning to formally declare her candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on May 4.  

Bottom line: No candidate with similar (lack of) conventional credentials has come remotely close to a nomination during the modern era. 

So what is the point? Some have suggested that a woman can bash Hillary Clinton in a way the dozen or more men in the Republican race can't.

But realistically, her candidacy is just as likely to contribute to the bucket of worms that awaits Republicans as they get ready for their debates. About 20 legitimate Republicans are currently running, if we move the line for “legitimate” enough to include Fiorina and Ben Carson, who is set to announce his candidacy the same day as Fiorina.

Granted, several may have dropped out before the first Republican debate, which is scheduled for August. But more than a dozen contenders will likely remain. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has talked about having candidates meet some polling threshold in order to be invited. That isn't going to be easy to administer.

Fourteen candidates, including Fiorina, currently have at least 1 percentage point in support in the current HuffPollster national estimate. That's too many! But set the bar at 5 percent, and Fiorina falls short -- as do four current and recent governors: Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich. Does the Republican Party really want to exclude them (and Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum)? 

With polls bouncing around this early in the process, there’s no way to assure that serious candidates are included without bringing in fringe contenders. Excluding candidates with the conventional credentials -- some of whom have supporters in the party with plenty of heft -- threatens to undermine the entire screening process. Would Priebus be able to tell John McCain to take a hike if Graham doesn’t quite qualify?

It’s one thing to stand tough when Alan Keyes demands inclusion or Dennis Kucinich whines about being locked out. It's quite another to avoid folding in this situation and letting more candidates in. After all, there's the chance that one candidate on stage might get frisky and try to duplicate Ronald Reagan's famous "I paid for this microphone" moment in 1980.  

So while Republicans may think that having Fiorina around to bash Clinton is good fun right now, the party is going to be faced with a real mess if some marginal contenders can’t be persuaded to drop out in the next few months.

  1. I understand why some Republicans believe that having a woman, any woman, to attack Hillary Clinton would solve their optics problem. But very few people watch nomination debates, and almost all of them are solid partisans. True swing voters won’t tune in until long after the primaries are over, and by then Fiorina will be long gone.

  2. Reagan had brought excluded candidates to a New Hampshire debate in which he and George H.W. Bush were the only invited candidates.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net