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Carly Fiorina was briefly a Republican primary star. Now she’s dropping out of the race.

Fiorina during better days for her candidacy.
Fiorina during better days for her candidacy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

For a few weeks in the summer, before it became clear that Donald Trump was here to stay, Carly Fiorina was the surprise rising star of the Republican primary.

But by the fall, her star faded. Fiorina never did better than third place in the national polling average, and by January, she wasn't even on the main debate stage.

After getting 4 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and less than 2 percent in Iowa, Fiorina announced Wednesday she was dropping out of the race.

In her statement announcing she'd end her campaign, Fiorina offered her own definition of feminism, and a subtle shot at Hillary Clinton:

To young girls and women across the country, I say: do not let others define you. Do not listen to anyone who says you have to vote a certain way or for a certain candidate because you're a woman. That is not feminism. Feminism doesn't shut down conversations or threaten women. It is not about ideology. It is not a weapon to wield against your political opponent. A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses and uses all her God-given gifts. And always remember that a leader is not born, but made. Choose leadership.

Few thought Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard whose previous political experience consisted of a losing bid for a Senate seat in 2010, would be the next president. Her biggest moment in the primary came when she played the role of the anti-Trump — someone with business acumen and private-sector experience, without the bombast and sexism.

Fiorina capitalized on Donald Trump's reputation on women

When Fiorina declared her candidacy in May, her biggest challenge seemed to be that she was an outsider without much political experience. She tried to turn this into a strength, saying she was "outside the professional politician class." The rise of Trump shows that this might not have been as big a handicap as the conventional wisdom thought.

But after she announced, Fiorina stagnated in the polls until the first Republican debate. She wasn't polling well enough to make the main event, but she dominated the undercard debate with fluent, precise answers and some good jabs at Trump. By the end of the night, she had more Google searches than he did.

From there, Fiorina carved out a niche for herself, appealing to voters who wanted some of Trump's traits — a business executive without a lot of political experience — without all the Trump trappings.

Where Trump blustered, Fiorina rattled off facts and figures. Where he turned to insults, she drew on specifics. And while Trump was being hammered as a misogynist, Fiorina was a competent, confident women.

But Fiorina's real boost came from Trump's decision to make an enemy of her. In an interview with Rolling Stone published in September, Trump criticized Fiorina's appearance, saying, "Look at that face — would anyone vote for that?"

This led to one of the most memorable moments of the presidential debates when the two met on September 16, this time on the main debate stage. As Ezra Klein wrote afterward:

CNN's Jake Tapper provided the opening. "In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you. Quote, 'Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?' Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona."

Fiorina didn't flinch. "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

Then Fiorina did something unusual for a candidate on a debate stage. She went silent. She let her seconds tick away. And the cheers rocked the auditorium.

Fiorina peaked at 12 percent

Fiorina's debate performances earned raves repeatedly — even if the specifics she fluently cited were often a parade of factual inaccuracies. She went from 2 percent of the vote on September 10 to 12 percent on September 16, based on Morning Consult's average of 422 national tracking polls.

But then Ben Carson and Marco Rubio began to take off (although both lagged behind Trump). She wasn't able to attract the press coverage of Carson, Trump, and later Cruz, who created controversy and basked in the attention it brought.

At the third Republican debate on October 28, attacks on the moderators took the spotlight — and Fiorina wasn't able to get the attention, and the polling bump, that she had at the first two. Meanwhile, Carson and Trump continued to poll well. The race had plenty of non-politicians — Trump, Fiorina, and Carson — and Fiorina turned out to be the least popular of the three.

Fiorina was once touted as a possible vice presidential candidate (speculation she suggested was sexist, since no one asked less popular male candidates if they were really running for the VP slot). But given how completely she's faded from the field, it's far from clear if she'd still be in contention.

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