To win, Hillary needs to act like a CEO

Hillary Clinton
Randall Hill | Reuters
Hillary Clinton

A funny thing is happening on Hillary Clinton's expected cakewalk to the Democratic presidential nomination; it's hitting a major bump in the road. Not one, but two national polling agencies now give the lead in Iowa to Senator Bernie Sanders. You read that right; Sanders isn't just close in those Iowa polls, he actually has the lead. And the Iowa caucuses are in just 19 days. Sanders has also closed the gap with Mrs. Clinton overall. The latest nationwide poll of Democrats has Clinton's once insurmountable lead over Sanders down to just four points. To stem this tide, Mrs. Clinton doesn't need to shift further to the left or attack Sanders more. To win, she needs to take a cue from the business world and act like an effective and take charge CEO.

Acting like a CEO with complete awareness of a growing problem and in complete control of handling it, the former Secretary of State needs to address her three options: 1) Ignore the recent poll weakness and write it off as just a false alarm. 2) Shake up the campaign staff and especially bring in some new blood at the top, or 3) Radically change the message and style while the campaign still has time to win over the broader electorate.

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Before considering option #1 too seriously, the Clinton team should do a quick history check. Since 1976, the Iowa caucuses have a terrible record of predicting who will eventually get the GOP presidential nomination. But in seven of the last eight truly contested Democratic presidential Iowa caucus races, the eventual Democratic Party nominee was the winner. In other words, Iowa is really important for Democrats. And it's too important to even consider ignoring these latest poll numbers, especially for a Democrat who has been expected for more than two years to win the nomination easily. The personal humiliation alone for Mrs. Clinton would be massive should she lose in Iowa and that's suddenly becoming a real possibility. Ignoring these polls or the importance of Iowa is simply not an option. And ignoring such a threat is not what a serious CEO would do. The first thing Clinton needs to do as effective CEO is to make sure no one on her team is taking these poll numbers as anything but a serious threat.

And that makes "CEO Clinton's" choice to pull the trigger on option #2 that much easier. She needs to fire campaign manager Robby Mook as soon as possible. The 36-year-old Mook has never done anything but work on campaigns his entire adult life. And yet the Vermont native and Columbia University graduate simply does not have the experience and familiarity with the national electorate to run a presidential campaign. In business terms, he's an ineffective COO doing little to stem a falling stock price. Firing Mook would have the doubly positive effect of making Mrs. Clinton look more like she's in command while shifting the focus of blame for this rough patch from her as a candidate to the way the campaign has been managed. There is historical evidence to support this move as well. Ronald Reagan fired campaign manager John Sears after Reagan surprisingly lost the 1980 Iowa caucuses and barely eked out a win in the New Hampshire primary. Sears ended up being blamed for Reagan's early 1980 weakness and retroactively blamed for Reagan's loss to President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries. It made Reagan look like a CEO and a more determined candidate with enough smarts to know that he needed a new COO. After jettisoning Sears, the Reagan campaign never faced a serious challenge again.

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Now comes the harder part. What kind of change in messaging can Clinton and a new campaign manager/COO peddle to the public? Right now, her message isn't working too well in Iowa. Based on these latest polls, Clinton's biggest weaknesses are among male voters, (where Sanders has an almost 2-1 edge), and the most liberal Democratic Party voters who strongly identify with Sanders' socialist/anti-big business message. Mook and company have been trying to focus on that second group by pushing to grab some of Sanders' core supporters in the form of Monday's announcement of Clinton's proposed "Fair Share Surcharge." It seems like that effort is falling flat. And at this stage in the game, it's probably too late to elbow Sanders off his pedestal as the most progressively liberal candidate on economic issues. Iowa voters also seem to value hard core honesty and plain speaking a little more than the rest of the country. That's also a tall order for the Clinton camp, as Mrs. Clinton has consistently been seen as less honest than almost every other presidential candidate.

So that brings us back to the first group where Clinton is trailing: male voters. This is where she has the most chance of getting somewhere with a new CEO persona. For male voters, that kind of image can go a long way. Casting herself as a "Getting Things Done" leader with less emphasis on feelings and more on progress is a winning proposition. And it's also what worked for her husband President Bill Clinton, who never exuded much honesty or possessed real progressive chops. But he was seen by most voters as an effective leader.

Hillary Clinton won't be able to achieve that kind of image if she waits too much longer to flush out her senior campaign staff. It's what any successful CEO would do and it's what any serious presidential candidate needs to do.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.