Does running the world’s largest technology company qualify you for America’s highest political office? That’s the question as the country digests today’s story in the Washington Post saying Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of computing giant Hewlett-Packard, is “actively exploring” a 2016 presidential run as a Republican.
Fiorina, who was also a one-time candidate to represent California in the U.S. Senate, would stand out in a Republican primary field that is as yet otherwise all-male, according to the story. And while female candidates in either party aren’t exactly new, Fiorina, 60, would bear another unique distinction from the others: She would be the first former CEO of a Silicon Valley company to make a run at the White House.
There are obviously numerous obstacles to a Fiorina nomination, let alone a presidency. First off, there are leading presumptive candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to name only two.
Another is her record as an executive at HP. Recall that in 2002 she engineered HP’s $20 billion takeover of PC company Compaq. The combination vaulted HP past Dell — then a seemingly unstoppable force — to the top of the personal computer industry, a position it held until recently when it was eclipsed by China’s Lenovo. The deal also created what was for several years the world’s largest tech company by revenue. (Apple is now bigger.)
The combination was bitterly opposed by representatives of the so-called “old HP,” namely Walter Hewlett, the son of co-founder William Hewlett, who launched a proxy fight to block the deal. He failed.
The merger was also painful. Wall Street initially hated it and HP shares fell 38 percent within two weeks of its announcement. And after the deal went through, there was further pain. By the end of 2003, some 15,000 HP and Compaq employees had lost their jobs. And while that’s a relatively small number when compared to the 55,000 HP expects to have cut by the end of next year, there are still many people who complain that HP has “never been the same” since the Compaq deal.
Fiorina was soon out of a job herself. After HP’s share price faltered, it missed its guidance on a couple of quarters amid competitive pressure from Dell and IBM. By early 2005, the company’s board pushed her out and soon replaced her with Mark Hurd.
History ultimately vindicated Fiorina’s strategy. PC companies made computers that were essentially commodities and little different from each other and so they were forced to compete on price. In time, that forced other mergers and acquisitions: Gateway acquired eMachines, Acer acquired Gateway, IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo. Numerous smaller companies like Alienware and VoodooPC were rolled up by Dell and HP respectively. Now, a dozen years later, HP is on its way to splitting the PC division off into a new company, which could lead to even more consolidation.
Four years after HP, Fiorina launched a failed bid to unseat Barbara Boxer from the U.S. Senate. During the campaign it emerged that she had rarely voted in elections. About that she said, “Shame on me.” She also fought and beat breast cancer, enduring a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. (She famously said that after chemo, “Barbara Boxer just doesn’t seem scary anymore.”) Fiorina won over more than 42 percent of California’s voters, but it wasn’t enough.
Could she do better at the national level? Most mainstream voters won’t remember her tenure at HP, and so at least in theory they might consider her a fresh voice. She’s worth somewhere north of $30 million, and perhaps as much as $120 million, and would, at a minimum, find numerous open doors among Republican-leaning donors in the business community — provided they haven’t already committed to another candidate.
However, CEO presidential candidates are rare and in modern memory haven’t succeeded. Recent examples include Herman Cain, the former CEO of a pizza chain, and Steve Forbes, the editor of Forbes Magazine, who ran in both 1996 and 2000. Neither came anywhere near the nomination.
Assuming she fails to win the Republican nomination there is another option for Fiorina to consider: Third-party spoiler. And her example would be another tech CEO.
Back in 1992, a loud-mouthed Texas billionaire named Ross Perot took the nation by storm. Having made his fortune building the tech services firm EDS (now part of HP) and armed with a dual populist-protectionist streak, as an Independent he scored more than 18 percent of the national vote and spoiled the re-election hopes of then-president George H.W. Bush, ensuring the election of Bill Clinton. It’s not as good as winning the White House, but it secured him a spot in the history books.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.