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Ted Cruz picks Carly Fiorina as running mate in a highly unusual move

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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During a rally Wednesday afternoon in Indianapolis, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced that he had selected former Hewlett-Packard CEO and unsuccessful 2016 GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina as his running mate.

“After a great deal of time and thought, after a great deal of consideration and prayer, I have come to the conclusion that if I am nominated to be the president of the United States, I will run on a ticket with my vice presidential nominee Carly Fiorina,” Cruz told hundreds of flag-waving supporters gathered at the Pavilion at Pan Am Plaza.

As cheers of “Carly! Carly!” subsided, Cruz hailed Fiorina as “an extraordinary leader,” reciting her résumé and lauding her experience as the “first female CEO in history of a Fortune 20 company.”

“Over and over again, Carly has shattered glass ceilings,” Cruz said.

It was yet another whiplash-inducing twist in what has become the weirdest presidential campaign in recent memory.

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Ted Cruz and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina wave during a rally in Indianapolis, April 27, 2016, when Cruz announced he has tapped Fiorina to serve as his running mate. (Photo: Michael Conroy/AP)

In a normal election year, an announcement like Cruz’s wouldn’t be so strange. Picking a vice-presidential partner is a regular and ritualistic part of the nomination process. Staffers start with a long list of contenders. They whittle it down to a shortlist, which inevitably leaks. The campaigns vet the candidates; so does the press. Eventually, the nominee settles on a sidekick who satisfies his chosen criteria: electoral strength, ideological balance, personal compatibility, readiness to serve as president and so forth. The pick is announced, the media salivates, the “rollout” commences.

All of which is happening right now.

The only difference? Unlike pretty much every other person in U.S. history who has selected a running mate, Cruz is not yet his party’s presidential nominee — and the odds are, he never will be.

“This selection seems to violate the norms followed by presidential candidates of both parties, which have usually produced able running mates and have helped elevate the office,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who specializes in vice presidential history.

It’s no mystery why Cruz felt compelled to jump the gun here. As conservative blogger Allahpundit explained earlier today, “He knew a blowout was coming on Tuesday and he’d need to shift the conversation afterward immediately with Indiana set to vote in just a week. Picking a VP is the only card he has to play that can suck some media away from Trump, at least for a few hours. … Without a ‘major’ development to discuss, he’[d] be left answering ‘How can you possibly win?’ questions for the rest of the week.”

It’s also no mystery why Cruz felt that Fiorina was his best veep option (even though, unlike Kasich or Marco Rubio, she doesn’t come with any delegates). After dropping out of the race in February, she became one of Cruz’s earliest and most vocal supporters. She has proven herself an able and agile attack dog — particularly when her quarry is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (a.k.a. the two people standing between Cruz and the presidency). As a businesswoman who has never held elected office, she is a political outsider at a time when GOP voters seem to crave political outsiders. She is a woman — a point Cruz made repeatedly — which could further weaken Trump with women voters and somewhat counterbalance Clinton’s strength in that department further down the road (in theory). And she is a popular figure among Republicans in California, where she lived for decades and won the party’s 2010 Senate nomination. Incidentally, California is going to a host a fairly important GOP primary in few weeks .

Still, pre-announcing Fiorina as his running mate is a perilous move for Cruz. It may strike voters not yet sold on Cruz as presumptuous — the equivalent of Al Gore launching his transition effort before the courts had officially decided the 2000 election. It would certainly limit Cruz’s leverage at a contested convention, where the veep slot can be a powerful bargaining chip — perhaps the only one with the power to propel a second-place candidate past the 1,237-delegate mark in later rounds of balloting. And even as a messaging maneuver, it may backfire.

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Ronald Reagan and his then running mate, Richard Schweiker, at a 1976 news conference in Philadelphia, where they charged that President Ford was playing “the same old politics” with his vice presidential choice, and warned that it would take the party to defeat in November. (Photo: Corbis)

“It seems like a last-ditch, desperate move,” Goldstein tells Yahoo News. “The vice-presidential selection sends messages about the selector. To choose someone who is not really an A-lister after an apparently truncated search does not send reassuring messages about Senator Cruz’s appreciation of the role of the office or his decision-making approach.”

If the press treats Cruz’s premature decision as a sign of desperation, it could spell trouble. As Goldstein notes, “not since 1936 has a running mate had zero years prior experience as a senator, high executive official, governor or member of the House of Representatives. That lack is particularly glaring in that Senator Cruz himself lacks as much experience in those positions as most presidential nominees.” Fiorina has other vulnerabilities as well, including her role in HP’s troubled merger with Compaq, which led to some 30,000 layoffs, and the fact that she lost both of her campaigns by massive margins. Trump will surely harp on both.

Only once in U.S. history has a candidate dared to select a running mate before clinching the nomination. The year was 1976. The candidate was Ronald Reagan. The former California governor was neck-and-neck with incumbent President Gerald Ford at the time, and his hope was that Richard Schweiker, a moderate U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, would soothe fears about his Western conservatism and flip some middle-of-the-road delegates in the weeks before the convention.

Instead, Reagan’s choice enraged many conservative delegates who were still angry about Ford’s veep selection two years earlier: moderate Nelson Rockefeller.

Reagan lost the nomination. But just barely. Announcing his VP pick much earlier than Reagan — long before the end of the primaries and months before the convention — is a sign that Cruz is unlikely to come as close to winning the nod as his hero did four decades ago. It may even push the prize further out of reach.