Back in the 1980s, I was a competitive analyst for IBM, and it was one of the most interesting jobs I ever held. The practice largely has died out, but at the time we were like the corporate version of the CIA. Since I’d been an internal auditor as well — which is somewhat like the corporate version of the FBI — I was a rarity. Few people serve in both agencies.
The downside of the job was that both roles were missioned to provide assessments that generally pissed off powerful people. In audit, I red-flagged the division president for severe violations of a security policy, which didn’t endear me to him, and in competitive analysis I caught the SVP of sales sharing one of my highly confidential reports with a competitor — which, at different times, had both men looking to find me a new life.
They were exciting times.
I thought it would be interesting to devote this column to looking at the Democratic presidential field and do what we used to do to competitors, and I realize this undoubtedly will piss off people who are invested in the candidates subjected to this exercise. If you’re one of them, I apologize, but at the same time I’ll point out that executives often didn’t follow analysts’ advice, and that generally ended badly. I expect that is why that profession largely went into decline.
After all, while it was annoying when we were wrong, it was maddening when they didn’t believe we were right, because it actually made the executives look like idiots.
This topic choice may make it seem I have a death wish, but I’ll dive in anyway, because this entire primary process, given the Democratic Party’s primary goal, bugs the hell out of me.
I’ll close with my product of the week: a new chiliPAD item that could be useful in the winter or summer to help with naps or even improve your sleep.
The Analysis Process
This is going to be an abbreviated effort — similar to what typically would be an executive summary of a formal report prepared by a competitive analyst. That’s mostly because I’m writing this on a plane, but also because I doubt any of you want to read a detailed report. (Don’t feel bad — I doubt many of my old executives ever read the detailed report either.)
Typically, the process would be to look at the environment — including the customer requirements and the strengths and weaknesses of the company — and then, against that backdrop, make a comparison of our proposed or existing product and what the competition had to offer.
Even though I’m a moderate Republican, I’m going to put Trump in place of the competitor, and the Democratic candidates I think will end up being the top three in place of our products. It has been decades since I’ve done this, so forgive me if I’m a tad rusty. Here goes.
Our Competitor: President Trump
Strengths: The president is the incumbent, and that provides him with more focused funding, a clear message going into the election, and the advantage of being a known entity. These three things are why incumbent candidates generally win.
Challengers tend to enter the contest wounded badly by the primary process. The incumbent has the advantage of the collective effective competitive positioning created during the primary. All else being equal, this alone gives a typical incumbent — one that has retained the team that got him elected — an overwhelming advantage (more on this later).
The president is both tactically strong and incredibly lucky. My old peers likely are rolling their eyes at this point, but I believe that luck needs to be factored in when considering people. He knows how to use social media, and he has one of the most powerful TV networks as an effective part of his campaign. (I wonder why someone hasn’t flagged this as a potential campaign funding violation, given that Fox News and the White House appear to closely coordinate.)
He knows how to capture and own a news cycle not just for hours or days, but seemingly for years. I’ve never seen even Steve Jobs do this as effectively. While it appears clear he massively overestimates his net wealth, he should have access to more personal funding than most potential challengers. He is very motivated, given the job currently is protecting him from a massive amount of adverse litigation, and he is using all his resources to win.
Finally, he appears to have a somewhat rare combination of little or no empathy and high charisma. He isn’t concerned about collateral damage. If pushed, he could be willing to do anything to ensure both his win and that Congress continues to prove ineffective as a check and balance. This collectively would make him unbeatable, but
Weaknesses: Many team members who got him elected, with clear exceptions, have been forced out of his orbit, so he will enter the election process with what appears mostly to be a brand new core team. Those attempting to protect him from himself have been forced out. At the time I’m writing this, his hand-picked attorney general appears to be going rogue.
His use of Twitter and his tendency to rant often make him appear unhinged, and this behavior seems to be getting worse. Every self-inflicted wound runs the risk of being fatal to his campaign. He is at war with an increasing number of powerful people. He seems to relish publicly proving that the moderate Republicans who believe he will get better are wrong.
The Republican-controlled Senate just tried to prevent him from going to war with Iran, and I expect that effort ultimately will fail. While he is an impressive counterpuncher and an expert at ad hominem attacks, he is strategically surprisingly weak and tends to be his own worst enemy.
I expect the president to be very difficult but not impossible to beat. It is likely he will be impeached and removed from office during his second term, which would give Republicans a safer president in Mike Pence unless there is some path to a third term for the president.
Many of the senior Republicans are strategic. They are aware that the runaway debt and potential for another war could lead to the kind of backlash that occurred after George W. Bush’s presidency, and they likely have concluded that removal in the second term would be the best way to avoid that outcome, given they have no control over an increasingly erratic president.
Our Product: The Ideal Candidate
To create parity, the ideal candidate will have to pull from a larger pool of voters and get those voters to vote, which is often problematic when you have a primary. The process requires the winner to alienate a significant number of the party’s voters. The challenger, therefore, should have a limited presence in the primary process so that the damage is minimized.
The candidate must be a moderate because it’s essential to pull from the middle, given that an increasingly acrimonious primary will compromise the hard left.
The candidate will need to have a counter resource to Fox News. So far, MSNBC, the likely counter, does not coordinate with Democratic candidates as Fox does with the president.
The ideal candidate will need to have the ability to get to a war chest that approximates Trump’s war chest, and be able to match the president tactically and execute a successful strategy.
Let’s look at the three candidates I’ve chosen.
1. Bernie Sanders
I expect Sanders is the candidate Trump would like to face. He was most afraid of Biden, but Biden has not been able to win a presidential primary, and we’ve seen that play out again. Frankly, I think Biden could have won in 2016 but he aged out, and his performance on stage makes the word “lackluster” seem like an understatement.
Ironically, the president put his presidency at risk to go after an opponent who wasn’t a real risk anymore, which should have been obvious, and I say this knowing Biden matches my views better than any other candidate.
Hillary Clinton beat Sanders and Trump beat Clinton badly, suggesting Trump could do the same to Sanders if Trump had the same team he beat Clinton with — but he doesn’t.
Still, Sanders doesn’t pull from the middle. Hillary Clinton also seems to want him to lose. He lacks the needed strategic skills and doesn’t have a counter to Fox News. He can’t come up with the same kind of war chest Trump currently has from donors, let alone Trump’s wealth. Finally, his history in primaries hasn’t been successful at a national level.
2. Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg’s performance in elections has been mixed, and he is new to the national stage. On the positive side, that means he has far less baggage, and he tends to appear impressively competent and ethical. If he connected to millennials, he might be an ideal candidate, but he appears to be polling older.
As an outsider, it isn’t clear if he can get the party behind him like President Obama did. Though Buttigieg has similar advantages, Obama was introduced more strongly at a prior Democratic National Convention.
Buttigieg is a member of the LGBT community, which is untested in elections but has proven to be cohesive, if not critically so in the past (that may have changed).
He is moderate and should pull better from the middle than Trump can, but he lacks an offset to Fox News. However, some of the power players in networks competing with Fox are likely to back him more aggressively than they back the other candidates.
He is polling poorly with the black community, which is has been an impressive power in past elections. He lacks the needed war chest, and he is taking fire from primary opponents, both of which suggest he will lose in a heads-up fight without significant additional support than he has generated so far.
I think he’ll do better than Sanders will in a heads-up match, but barring an admittedly likely major Trump mistake, he’ll likely fail in the general election.
3. Mike Bloomberg
I’m putting Mike Bloomberg in next because he is the only candidate with the funding and the potential to offset Fox News. Granted he has weakened this substantially, but he has proven to be strategic, and he understands media potentially better than Trump. Trump built a popular show, but Bloomberg built a powerful news network. Bloomberg is also very lucky.
He is a known quantity with a decent reputation, but the downside is that he’s also pulling weakly from the black community. His combined experience of running a very large company and governing New York successfully suggests he could do the job well. Given he is moderate, has the strongest potential to appeal not only to the middle but to the moderate right.
He hasn’t shown much support among Millennials — but neither has Trump, making this something of a wash. The primaries haven’t badly damaged him, though that could change as he formally enters the race.
He has shown that he can counterpunch at Trump’s level, which is not an unusual skill for a top executive. While trying to match Trump with a similar skill in the last Republican primary ended badly, I’d argue that it was because Trump’s challengers sucked at it.
On paper, Bloomberg is largely untested at a national level. He is the strongest alternative to Trump and has the greatest potential to win, but only if he can use his own company to counter Fox News or find a way to separate Fox from the president. In theory, he could buy Fox News and shut it down, or reverse his decision to put Bloomberg News on the sidelines — neither of which currently appears likely.
Another path to success for all these candidates is Trump continuing to go off the rails in terms of his behavior. He remains the greatest risk to his success as of this writing.
If I were to call the election today, I’d likely call it in favor of Trump but argue that he is likely to lose the Senate and not recapture the House of Representatives, much like both George W. Bush and Obama did. This will set up a second impeachment, the first in U.S. history. He’ll likely be removed from office as the Republicans scramble to save their careers for fear Trump’s behavior will degrade further, costing not only their jobs but increasingly their person safety.
Most don’t want what could become a global conflict, and the Iran close call appears to have many rattled, given the recent attempt to reduce presidential authority. Mike Pence is far more malleable and certainly safer, and while I doubt he could win an election at a presidential level, the Republicans easily could bring in an external candidate who would put them on a firmer path to the future.
An ideal outcome for the Democrats appears to be to embrace Bloomberg early and put taking over the presidency ahead of far-left initiatives that probably can’t get through Congress anyway, particularly if they lose the election. However, that is an unlikely outcome at this time.
It is increasingly likely that the president will damage his re-election effort critically through his behavior, but as likely as that may appear, you can’t ever bet on the other side screwing up.
Were I advising a company in a similar position — one that was unwilling to do what was needed to win — I’d recommend a path with a more certain outcome. In this case, I’d recommend setting up early for that second impeachment instead of betting on the unlikely favorable outcome of the general election.
With this, I’ve showcased not only how we used to do this stuff but why it is very hard to find many who still do this, because I’ll bet I have pissed off a large chunk of folks in both parties at this point.
I expect that many of the folks doing similar opponent analysis in the parties have learned this, and instead of a report like this one, they have chosen to give their candidates a report that is far more positive and in line with what they want to hear.
I’ll leave you with one more story. In IBM, we had a sister organization that did exactly what I just suggested and told the executives that IBM was invulnerable. While my group was disbanded and we had to find new jobs, the folks in the other group got raises and promotions. They also were instrumental in taking IBM from a market leader to a company that almost went out of business.
As I’ve aged, my ability to get a good night’s sleep has gone from great to dismal. Like a lot of men, I don’t sleep well when I’m hot. Electric blankets and pads give me concerns due to the long proximity to electric fields, and they mostly aren’t very smart.
I’d thought that an ideal solution was to use something like what they use for race car drivers, jet pilots and astronauts, and circulate water instead of warming wires — both to eliminate the field and provide a much more even and manageable field.
Plus, you could both heat and chill the water — something you can’t do with an electric blanket or pad alternative. I use and love the new Ooler, as I think it is both a smarter and better-engineered product than the older chiliPAD design.
Chili’s latest offering is the chiliBLANKET, which combines a weighted blanket — something I like, but my wife isn’t a fan of — with this same technology.
It’s designed more for a single user — you’d need two for a couple in bed, though it works fine for two on a couch. This gives people who want the heat and weight on top a better solution.
While I think the couch solution is attractive as a concept, the heater/chiller doesn’t integrate well in a living room. Also, the hose became problematic in my use. Unless you’re more creative than I seem to be, the better and more likely use is on a single bed, or with two of them on a larger bed.
At US$499, it is an interesting and potentially more portable solution than the chiliPAD, and it’s ideal for someone who either sleeps alone or has a partner who doesn’t want a heating/cooling solution.
What I found is that I like to nap outside, but for much of the year it is either too hot or too cold to do that. This does address that problem reasonably well, so the chiliBLANKET is my product of the week.