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Despite the Disruptors, This Election Has A Predictable End (Forbes.com) April 7, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

If the 2016 presidential campaign were a movie, it would be “Year of the Disruptors.”  The outsiders and disruptors have dominated the Republican race from the beginning, but now we are essentially down to two very different disruptors:  Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  One of the two Democratic finalists, Bernie Sanders, is yet another kind of disruptor, leaving only Hillary Clinton as a classic establishment candidate. The American voters are frustrated and would like to deliver a message through these several disruptor candidates but, in the end, they will not want a disruptor for president, so (spoiler alert) Hillary will win.

Movies love flashback scenes, so let’s go back 20 years to a seminal article by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coining the term “disruptive innovation.”  His definition, from a more recent article, is “a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses.”  The disruptors gain their toehold, Christensen argues, by focusing on “overlooked” customers often nearer the bottom of a market segment, while traditional companies compete at the top.  Eventually the traditional businesses that have dominated the market face a tough choice whether to compete on the disruptor’s turf, or stay their course, at the risk of losing the market altogether.

This is the script for Donald Trump’s campaign.  While establishment Republicans catered to big business, Washington officials, and other traditional party constituencies, a real frustration was building further down market.  For example, a recent Pew Research Center survey has found that 46% of registered voters say life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them,” and an impressive 66% among Republicans and, drum roll please, 75% among Trump supporters.  And so with very little money, few well-developed policies, and almost no endorsements initially, the Trump persona began to connect with the frustrated Republicans down market and the disruption began.  The rest of the campaign has simply fanned the disruptor flames as traditional establishment candidates bit the dust.

Ted Cruz came to Washington as a disruptor in the U.S. Senate, a “club” with a lot of traditions and niceties that does not suffer disruptors gladly.  Cruz filibustered and shut down the government—in short he does not play nicely by club rules.  This makes Cruz a bit of a complicated character in the movie, in that he is by definition (a U.S. Senator) an insider, yet his style is that of an outsider or disruptor.  Most conservatives are some kind of disruptor—conservative godfather William F. Buckley said they “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’”—and Cruz has conservative policy chops that Trump lacks.  The further irony, however, is that at this point in the movie, most of Cruz’s momentum comes from the non-disruptor part of the market that sees him as less undesirable than the other disruptor, Trump.

Bernie Sanders is also disrupting the Democratic race, but with less electoral success than his Republican counterparts.  Here his primary contribution is a more traditional one within a party:  a strong loser may nevertheless cause the nominee to change positions to accommodate him and his supporters.  So the disruption risk is not so much that Bernie will win, but that he will wear out Hillary, raise a lot of problems in her record, and force her to the left, all of which is happening.

When the movie reaches its climax, however, I think some of the air will go out of the disruptor balloon.   Unlike successful business disruptors such as Uber or Amazon, who can start small and take years to succeed, a presidential campaign has an end date by which candidates must close their sale.  There is plenty of drama left, to be sure.  The Republicans may have their first open or disrupted convention in decades and there is some small chance the disruptors will be stopped there on a second or later ballot.

But disrupting is not the same as governing, which is what makes politics very different from business.  In the end, I think the American people—according to Pew only 17% of whom are “content” with their federal government, 59% are “frustrated” and 22% “angry—are making a strong statement against politics as usual, but will not elect a disruptor president.


To read the column at Forbes.com:


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