Would Carly Fiorina on ticket ensure a GOP victory?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Would having Carly Fiorina on the 2016 ticket gain women votes for the GOP?
  • To win over women voters, Republicans need policies more than personalities, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" and co-editor of a new book, "Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America's Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)There has been growing enthusiasm about former CEO Carly Fiorina. Although there are not many Republicans who are predicting that she might be the next presidential nominee, after the buzz from the first Republican debate there has been much more discussion that she could be the perfect vice presidential nominee.

As the political scientist Melissa Michelson said, "the Republican Party also has an incentive to find a way to include her because she is the only woman" in the Republican field and she would provide gender balance as a vice presidential candidate.
Julian Zelizer
Republicans, they say, who have been struggling with the women's vote and who have watched as Donald Trump sinks to new lows in his comments about women, might be able to change the image of the party by putting a former female executive on the ticket.
    Fiorina hasn't shown any interest in the vice presidential slot and her supporters say she's running for president, not the second spot.
    But she has stressed her gender as a factor. "Because I am a woman," Fiorina said, "there are many things she can't say [Hillary Clinton]. She can't play the gender card."

    Sarah Palin and history

    This is not the first time that we have heard these kinds of predictions. When Arizona Sen. John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the same kind of speculation sprouted. Palin was one of the most interesting up-and-coming female politicos on the scene and some experts initially predicted that her addition to the ticket could counteract some of the enthusiasm about Barack Obama's historic candidacy.
    But these kinds of predictions should not be taken very seriously. Rarely have we seen political parties swing large blocs of voters simply based on the selection of someone who is "different" from the party's status quo. This would be especially true for a vice presidential pick, which doesn't tend to make much of a difference in the campaign.
    It is true that the Republicans have a problem with female voters. Professional campaigners in the GOP would and have been the first to say this. Republicans have struggled with the "gender gap" for decades.
    In 2012, according to Gallup, President Obama "won the two-party vote among female voters . . by 12 points." The gender gap in the 2012 election was bigger than in any other election Gallup had tracked. Besides the imbalance of votes, the gender gap has resulted in fewer female Republicans who run or hold office. The Rutgers University Center for American Women in Politics found that there are six times as many female Democrats as female Republicans in Congress. The numbers are also bad for Republicans at the state level.

    Policy, not personalities

    The problem Republicans have has to do with policy, not just personalities. This is a point that Hillary Clinton made effectively in some recent speeches. While Trump's comments might be the most dramatic examples of this issue, the real challenge comes from the fact that Republicans have lagged on a number of issues that matter very much to female voters, such as federal child care support, funding for family planning, pay equality, paid family leave and much more.
    Without addressing these policy issues in new ways, the chances of Republicans closing this gap remain extraordinarily slim.
    Traditionally, when parties have been able to win over significant new blocs of voters the change has not been the result of putting a new type of face on the ticket. They key to new victories has been public policy. During the 1930s and 1940s, working and middle-class Americans moved solidly into the Democratic coalition because of New Deal programs that provided them with economic security and financial protection.
    Though Franklin D. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician, his policies were exactly what much of the nation was looking for. As a result of the New Deal, bank deposits would be protected, unions were deemed to be legitimate, the unemployed could count on insurance, and the elderly could count on a base of financial support upon their retirement. Millions of rural Americans also became loyal to the Democratic Party as a result of the agricultural programs that the government started to provide to protect farm prices.
    African-Americans abandoned any doubts they had about whether to support the party of Lincoln or the party of Lyndon B. Johnson when he and a Democratic Congress were seen as responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
    While there were Republicans like Sen. Everett Dirksen who were important to the coalition behind the passage of the program, there was no mistaking that these were Democratic bills.
    Johnson's commitment to the legislation counteracted decades of opposition from Southerners, most of whom would bolt to the GOP in the decades the followed. Similarly, millions of elderly Americans were thrilled and appreciative of the protections provided by Medicare and Medicaid. The key to expanding the coalition revolved around policy, not personality.

    How GOP presidents have won over voters

    Republican presidents since the 1960s have done the same. Until his resignation in 1974, Richard Nixon, re-elected to a sweeping victory in 1972, was able to expand support for the GOP through a combination of law and order programs that appealed to the white backlash against civil rights and his grudging acceptance of some liberal initiatives that softened his image with moderates. He won widespread support, except from the Republican right, for his foreign policy of détente that offered a new approach to dealing with communist super powers.
    Ronald Reagan did the same with an agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and a vigorous approach to combating communism, all of which helped to win over voters from the Democratic Party. Republicans also benefited with their appeal to the backlash against certain liberal policies such as environmentalism and affirmative action.
    Of course, Ronald Reagan's personal popularity was hugely important; but it was his policies that were key to building the electoral coalition that would thrive for several decades.
    We saw the same with George W. Bush and the Republican Congress after 2002 who offered a combination of anti-terrorism programs, federal education initiatives, economic and environmental deregulation and health care benefits for the elderly (with the expansion of Medicare) that solidified the Republicans hold on government.
    President Obama has personally appealed to many constituencies such as African-Americans in 2008 and 2012, in what was a unique case. But it was also crucial that he campaigned through the party that had historically been most supportive of programs to benefit African-Americans and others who were disadvantaged.
    He also did well in 2012 with immigrants after it became clear that the hard line in the GOP was winning out in the internal war within their party and the president used executive power to provide assistance to the children of illegal immigrants. That, combined with policies like Obamacare, signaled commitment to those who have been struggling.

    Underestimating the voters

    While some Republicans are becoming increasingly optimistic that they can win over substantial blocs of voters through a symbolic nomination such as Fiorina, they underestimate the electorate. The same holds true with immigration.
    The reason that someone like Sen. Marco Rubio might be a good pick for the GOP with the immigrant vote is not because he is Cuban-American, but because he has been part of the faction within the Republican Party that has been fighting for a liberalized immigration policy in direct conflict with the hardline restrictionists in the House.
    And for every signal that Rubio or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sends to voters that they are part of a different party tradition, Donald Trump's stinging remarks about immigrants and controversial policy proposal about building walls and sending entire families back likely will set back the party with Latinos for decades.
    The fact that Jeb Bush is now talking about "anchor babies" does not bode well for the future of the party with this part of the electorate.
    If Republicans really want to expand their support they will need to do more than pick a nominee who "symbolizes" something different. Instead, they will have to instead put forth a set of policies that address the real challenges that different groups of women have struggled with in the workplace, at home, and in society.
    At this point, as many Republicans have been moving closer to Trump's statements rather than rejecting his positions the odds of any real change in the near future are slim.