Ted Cruz's Carly Fiorina Gambit Didn't Save Him

Their six-day alliance alone didn't tank Cruz's campaign — but it definitely did not help

Ted Cruz picked Carly Fiorina as his hypothetical running mate last Wednesday. On Tuesday night, he dropped out of the race. Credit: Getty

Only two people know for sure when Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina struck their faustian bargain: Was it just last week, when they awkwardly made their announcement, or was it nearly a year ago, when a Cruz-supporting super PAC injected a Fiorina-supporting super PAC with a half million dollars? But what we can say with certainty now is that preemptively naming Fiorina his vice president failed for Ted Cruz.

Cruz-Carly 2016 is toast; he suspended his (their?) campaign Tuesday night after a trouncing in Indiana. Cruz took home a little less than 37 percent of the vote, compared to Trump's 53 percent, and zero of the state's delegates. "From the beginning I've said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory. Tonight, I'm sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed," Cruz told supporters gathered in Indianapolis.

Given that their alliance lasted less than a week, it's hard to argue that adding the failed Hewlett-Packard CEO to his nonexistent ticket alone tanked Cruz's campaign — but it definitely did not help. Polls in Indiana showed Trump's lead widened after Cruz and Fiorina joined forces: An average deficit of six points grew to an average of ten after they teamed up. Polling in other states indicates voters were underwhelmed by the gambit. In West Virginia, 31 percent of voters said the fact Cruz asked Fiorina to be his running mate made them less likely to vote for him, while just 12 percent said it increased the chances.

It was a risky move from the start, one that famously backfired for Cruz's conservative hero, Ronald Reagan, back in 1976. (Reagan named moderate senator Richard Schweiker his prospective VP before the Republican convention in a bid to gain votes, but he alienated hardline conservatives in the process.) But his decision also made weird a kind of sense.

Fiorina qualified, for rhetorical purposes at least, as a "political outsider." (Though technically, "failed political candidate" would be a much more accurate description: She ran and lost a 2010 Senate bid, but held a number of insider-y political positions like fundraising chair of the Republican National Committee, and head of George W. Bush's external CIA review board.) Her lack of political experience was critical for protecting Cruz's image as an anti-establishment hero taking on the "Washington Cartel."

And, like Cruz, a standout on his high school and college circuits, Fiorina was a skilled debater. She was the only primary candidate to graduate from the JV debate stage to the main event, effectively crossing over from the fringe to the mainstream.

You have to imagine, though, that one of Fiorina's most appealing qualities to Cruz — if not the most crucial factor in his desperate calculus — was the fact that she was a woman.

Fiorina was the only Republican primary candidate to whom Trump failed to stick a primitive caricature. "Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco," low energy mama's boy Jeb Bush — there was a glint of truth in each of Trump's insult that laid each of their weaknesses as candidates bare. He didn't have a nickname for Fiorina, and the one memorable insult he lobbed at her — "Look at that face" — blew up in his own.

Trump has shown an incredible capacity to denigrate and alienate entire groups — Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled — without consequences. His attacks on women are the only ones that have consistently backfired against him.

Think about the cringeworthy moment he was forced to walk back that criticism of Fiorina's appearance: telling her on the debate stage she "has a beautiful face and is a beautiful woman." Think about the way he sputtered and spat when Fox's Megyn Kelly quizzed him about his sexist comments. When Trump said the only card Hillary Clinton had to play was "the woman card" a week ago, Clinton raised $2.4 million dollars off the remark in just two days and added 47,000 new donors to her campaign.

The reason accusations of sexism have stuck is because, as anyone who has ever heard him on Howard Stern can attest, his own superiority, especially over women, is Donald Trump's only deeply held belief. So many of Trump's policy positions — on "the wall," on Obamacare, on Common Core — are products of the studious attention he's paid to right-wing radio. Those positions, his advisors readily admit, are just part of a role Trump is playing; he'll likely change many the ones he hasn't changed yet when he's officially handed the nomination. Unlike his policies, Trump's disdain for women, his chauvinism, have a real, demonstrated history.

That's something Ted Cruz tried, but failed, to capitalize on, and it's something that will serve Hillary Clinton well in the general election.

Ted Cruz suspended his campaign for president after losing to Donald Trump in the Indiana primary. Watch highlights from last night's primary speeches.