01/17/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The All-Wheel-Drive of Republican Candidates


I live in Michigan -- the Great Lakes State. The upside -- The earth doesn't shake, the wind doesn't blow everything into the ocean every other year and fires can't burn very much because we are surrounded by 95 percent of all the fresh water in the United States including 12,000 lakes that pock the Swiss cheese landscape. The downside -- snow, more snow and snow still. To live this far north you have to make friends with winter -- ice hockey, ice fishing, schnapps on ice -- you get the point. So it might be said that we have a practical progressive mindset -- fashionistas seldom migrate this far north but when they do what they wear is their own damn business -- pass the beer nuts. So when I went looking for a new all-wheel-drive car recently I had an epiphany regarding the misalignment of the Republican presidential candidates. Follow the bouncing ball... or tires as it were.

All-wheel-drive is very useful up here in the Snow Belt. Sometimes that extra axle gets you some much needed traction -- other times it just gives folks the feeling that they can drive like crap until they find themselves turned around in a ditch. These days you can't just buy a car with the options you want without getting screwed on the price. You have to buy the "package." So with one car company all-wheel-drive is part of their sport package tricked out with lo-pro racing wheels and blue halogen lights. I don't plan on pimping my ride and racing any snowmobiles so I move on. The next car company sells all-wheel-drive as part of its mini-SUV tree hugger package -- hybrid powertrain, seats made from bamboo and a 99 pound weakling engine. I'm not so committed to being green that I would be willing to drive a vehicle huffing "I think I can" as it wheezes up the steep hill that leads to my house. Yet another car company offers all-wheel-drive as part of its premium package -- walnut dashboard, leather everything and premium gas apparently to show the other stiffs at the gas station that money is of little matter. Since I won't be driving Muffy to the ugly hats gala at the club I pass on this one too. So here I am relegated to a micro-segment. People who want to drive a reasonably reliable and attractive all-wheel-drive car.

Now I'm beginning to wonder if I'm out of step as I frequently am or if the car companies have gotten the core market segments mixed up. Have they combined things that we want with stuff that we don't... just like say Republican candidates? For example Newt Gingrich wants to replace Obamacare with a reasonable plan for making insurance more affordable -- pooling risk, using high tech diagnostics and record keeping, and generous tax credits -- but you have to buy the misplaced animosity against gay couples. With Romney you get responsible spending caps and viable tax reform but it unfortunately only comes sans a women's rights option. Rick Santorum suggests constructive negotiations with China regarding trade disputes and exchange rates but you must also purchase the plan to attack Iran accessory with it.

Of course, there is the just plain goofy options regarding Second Amendment rights to own a flame thrower, the moral duty of using incandescent light bulbs just to stick it to the man and the extreme handyman urge to build a large fence from sea to shining sea. I'm guessing it will make it hard to see the purple mountains majesty. More so, relatively middle of the road candidates, for Republicans at least, such as John Huntsman, are summarily thrown into moving traffic... or maybe just until 2016.

This may all just be a bait-and-switch operation designed to bring preferred customers -- card-carrying voters -- to the dealership only to later offer more moderate options to the general public -- the potentially "reasonable" middle. Maybe the nominations are really just a test market and these candidates need to get some real customer insight before they offer a product that anyone wants to buy. Or maybe they are simply mistaking a micro-segment for the market in toto. The worst of all possible strategic mistakes is to get an increasing share of a decreasing market -- old docs with gunslinger belt pagers comes to mind.

Keeping with the analogy, while it may be said that the president inherited a lemon, he has on occasion gone joy riding -- fiddling with the radio, texting friends and missing some crucial road signs to on and off ramps. A refresher course of drivers training might prove beneficial -- keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel (sing it if you know it).

While voters are extremely pissed off these days, they're pissed off about very different things -- too much government, too little health care, taxes too high or too low. Party liners exist on all sides. Ask yourself when is the last time you thought the loyal opposition had a good point or let them know they were doing something constructive? Many of these disputes are not of kind but of degree -- the speed and magnitude of things -- not enough or too fast.

Which brings me back to my all-wheel-drive dilemma -- there were some things about most of the cars I considered that I liked but they were packaged all wrong. In my line of work this usually means that these cars need to be taken for a strenuous test drive out on some serpentine proving grounds to see what actually works... and what doesn't. So I propose that we skip the name calling, the something-vaguely-like-a-debate and the primaries all together and instead give each candidate a test drive -- Resolve a water rights dispute in the Central Valley of California, develop a workable strategy to get Pontiac (city or car company -- your call) out of bankruptcy or create an alternative solution to educating the children of illegal immigrants in San Antonio. If they can't navigate lesser obstacles we will know that they have little hope of success when faced with greater ones. At the end, instead of voting, we can suggest potential improvement points -- things that would make us actually want to buy what they are selling. As for me, I don't want much -- a safe, reliable and quasi-attractive all-wheel-drive sedan. It's going to be a long winter.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS Special by the same name, visit his web site at or follow his blog on innovation at