Forecasting and trendwatching: when do politicians catch up?

Img_2554 Hillary Clinton has recently suffered the kind of "blind side hit" that routinely storms through industries and markets.

One hit came from without: Barak Obama.  The other came from within.  The decision to press Bill Clinton into the breach, after Iowa, proved disastrous.  Lecturing the press, making grand and dubious statements, Bill Clinton was a liability from the second week.  He was the blind side hit within. 

Poor Hilliary.  It puts one in mind of the roller derby (one of the homes of the blind side hit).  It was as if Barak and Bill skated up on either side of her, lifted her off the track by her elbows, and tossed her over the rail. 

On Sunday (February 17), Meet the Press shed some light on this development.  According to Tim Russert (the host) and Kate O’Beire, a panelist, the Clinton campaign had persuaded itself of its own inevitability.  The Clinton camp believed, as O’Beirne put it, "no one’s in a position to deny this to us."  We are told that Hillary Clinton supposed it would "all be over by February 5th."

Now, some say that Clinton harbors imperial presumptions, that she saw the White House as her due, that she was blinded by hubris.  This strikes me as unlikely.  I think Hillary did what all of us do.  She assumed that things were in order…until it was clear that they weren’t.  Lots of CEOs have been surprised in just this way.  There are always unknown unknowns.  Who expects the unexpected?   Human beings are good at glib assumptions.  Assumptions are in their very nature hard to see. Without vigilance, they are assumed and therefore invisible.  Hilliary made the mistake any of us might have made. 

Well and good.  What about stage 2?  What happens when glib assumptions give way to horrified understanding.  What happens when we know there’s a spanner in the works, when we have a fix on Obama rising and Bill on a rampage?  How quickly and how well does one react?

Obama’s camp appears to have the advantage here.  Russert quoted a passage from a recent column by Joe Klein.

If nothing else, a presidential campaign tests a candidate’s ability to think strategically and tactically and to manage a very complex organization.  We have three plausible candidates remaining — Obama, Clinton and John McCain — and Obama has proved himself the best executive by far.  (Time Magazine, Febrary 25th)

Where the Obama camp is strong, the Clinton camp is weak.  Another Meet the Press panelist, Al Hunt, Washington Managing Editor, Bloomberg News, quoted Josh Green in the Atlantic on the "total disarray of the Clinton campaign."  Hunt said

David Axelrod and company at the Obama campaign has run rings around the Clinton Campaign.  They weren’t prepared for a protracted battle, they weren’t prepared for a money fight, they weren’t prepared for caucuses, they weren’t prepared for a tough alternative.  Every smart politician and strategist… comes in with a game plan, but the really good ones are able to adjust, to throw out some stuff, to tweak some stuff, the Stu Spensers, the James Carvilles, these people [the Clinton camp] couldn’t adjust."  (emphasis added)

There is no easy out for Hilliary Clinton here.  If the campaign is not adjusting quickly, blame must go to the CEO who put the team together. And now there is, as Klein and Hunt say, grounds to doubt Clinton’s worthiness for office.  Not to expect dynamism is one thing.  Not to equip yourself with the ability to react to it, this is another. 

Surely, the political world is as unstable as the industrial one.  You think about the numbers of candidates that have "come out of nowhere" (Dean last election, Huckabee this one), the number of times voters have refused to conform to form, the elections that have spun wildly out of control.  Glib assumptions are as reckless and uncalled for here as they are in the business world. 

Except of course they are punished much more harshly.  The cost is not a bad quarter or even a lost job.  In some sense, the punishment is extinction.  If you fail to spot the blind side hit, you are in danger of ceasing to be a politician.  Screw up badly enough, and your career is over.  It’s not impossible to make yourself permanently unemployable.

Forecasting, trend watching, scenario planning, damage control contemplation, a willingness to grapple with uncertainty, hiring Piers Fawkes, Steven Postrel, and Andrew Zolli, all of these are standard issue activities for the corporation.  And it would appear that politicians have incentives more substantial than the average CEO.  When do politicians catch up to their brothers and sisters in the private sector?


For the Meet the Press website, and it’s reference to the February 17th show with Tim Russert, Bob Novak, Al Hunt, Kate O’Beirne, Mark Shields, and Margaret Carlson, here

Last note:

I watched the McLaughlin Group after Meet the Press, and I was impressed that McLaughlin remains a thundering blow hard and, more strikingly and not to be unkind, how much Monica Crowley looks like a Thunderbirds puppet. 

5 thoughts on “Forecasting and trendwatching: when do politicians catch up?

  1. Carol Gee

    Good insightful post, Grant. You put your finger on a couple of important points. Erroneous assumptions can get the ambitious into trouble. And ambitious politicians are vulnerable to “extinction.” We/the nation has lost its skill in dealing with both celebrities and politicians. We either do not hold them to enough account, excusing the unexcusable; or we cut them down without a blink. I lay a tremendous amount of blame for this at the feet of an over-consolidated mainstream media, that is more interested in gossip and profits than journalism or investigation.
    What would we do without the blogosphere to give us a bit of unvarnished reality?

  2. dave.s.

    I think Bill Clinton has not been the same since his heart operation. He’s a pump head, now, a shadow of what he was. Still impressive, but no longer superman. And she was relying on him to be right, on the politics, since he always has been before. A mix of age and surgery, and yes, she got blindsided.

  3. john mcgarr

    To me the failure of politicians is a very common one – the failure to understand that it is impossible to predict the reaction of the nation (or even a single person) to the live and ever evolving stimuli that gets put forth during such a campaign. Its not a matter of forecasting or trendwatching; it is entirely about managing in the face of complexity, which can only be successfully done with a “safe-fail”, limited exposure approach of testing the way through the field of icebergs. Since we can not possibly predict, we must stop trying to and finally allocate the appropriate resources to quickly, repeatedly and systematically test our way, use our ability to deal with hindsight and course correct quickly – and the protracted length of an American leadership and election campaign certainly allows enough time to make it happen.
    It is the same for industry.

  4. John McCreery

    There’s a highly relevant article in the February 08 Harvard Business Review. Description as follows:

    “When companies put seasoned managers in charge of important projects, they don’t expect missed deadlines, budget overruns, and rampant defects. However, that’s what researchers found when they tested hundreds of experienced project managers with computer games that simulated software development projects. The study, conducted by two professors from Insead and one from Naval Postgraduate School, strongly suggests that veterans in complex environments suffer a breakdown in the learning process. The research reveals three reasons for the breakdowns: Time lags between causes and effects make it difficult to see how they’re connected; fallible estimates color the chain of decisions that determine a project’s outcome; and a bias toward the initial goals prevents managers from setting revised, more appropriate, targets when project circumstances change. Sticking to an initial low budget goal after a project grew in scope, for instance, led subjects to ignore quality assurance, which led to soaring defect rates–and costs. Companies can take practical steps to fix the learning cycle. They can provide feedback that shows the relationships between important variables in the environment. Such feedback might reveal, say, the 20-day ramp-up that a new quality assurance team needs before becoming fully effective. Tools that apply formal models to calculate such things as the effect of turnover on team productivity also help. Setting goals for behavior, instead of targets for performance, is critical as well. Finally, firms can create project “flight simulators” that mimic actual learning environments but don’t let complexity overwhelm trainees. Managers can continue learning only if they get decision support tailored to the challenges they face. Firms would do well to focus more on training people higher up in the organization and stop leaving them to fend for themselves.”

  5. Rob Fields

    Bravo, Grant!

    You know, I was wondering when you were going to weigh in on this fascinating political season. More than anything, it seems that the campaign is exposing (for those who have eyes to see) an incredible cultural shift that we find ourselves in the midst of. Have you been reading Frank Rich in the Times? He is so eloquent in his analysis of the cultural shift, the moment, the Hillary is fighting and Barack seems to be winning. Back in January, based on Kirk Johnson’s NY Times article, I wrote the following post:

    The question is, of course, are marketers thinking about what this shift means, and how they’ll fare when the dust settles?

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