C&E: What’s your sense on why some folks on the right haven’t truly embraced the tech world?
Messina: Part of it is just that the huge majority of our tech people were really young. The truth is that young voters under 30 support the president and Democrats 2-to-1. And so they’re motivated. The other thing is that we very early embraced that world and said, “Hey, this is not a traditional campaign. We want to go build it.” We hired a CTO, Harper Reed, who not only was a genius but who called up a bunch of his friends and said, “This is real. They’re really going to build something completely different.” So we gave him a bunch of time and money, locked him in a room and told him to dream up the future. He did.
C&E: Where do you fall on this question of partisan versus nonpartisan technology? It’s the nonpartisan folks who seem more willing to embrace Silicon Valley, which is exactly what the Obama campaign did.
Messina: We believe very deeply in open source and in listening to people from every side. I did this grand tour before the campaign started and went to every Silicon Valley firm and met with Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt and Steven Spielberg. And what they all basically said was that technology is changing really quickly and you have to listen to everybody. I always believe there’s more wisdom outside of D.C. than inside. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant consultants. There are—especially on the tech stuff. There are some young tech entrepreneurs who understand way better than you and I do where the future of tech is going.
C&E: What is it that worries consultants about the influence of Silicon Valley or generates skepticism?
Messina: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them about it. I just know that we built this thing called Tech for Obama, which was Silicon Valley folks who wanted to be helpful, and they legitimately changed the way we thought about politics.
C&E: So you’re not of the mindset that data and technology must be partisan in order to truly be innovative and effective?
Messina: No, I’m not. I mean, it can be. I don’t want to say it’s not, because Blue State does some of the most innovative stuff in the country and it’s a partisan firm.
C&E: What’s the direction for OFA right now? You’ve now said it won’t take corporate money and will disclose donors who give $250 or more. How do you keep growing it and how does it compete with other groups?
Messina: The assets we have are two-fold. First, there’s unparalleled grassroots support. On the first day of this organization, we had the largest email list and the largest volunteer list in the history of American politics. Second is the technology. Those are the two things we should focus on. We’re not going to replicate the wheel and try to be a policy group or do any of those things. There are great groups in this town and across the country that already do that. What we are going to do is reach out to the grassroots and ask them to organize their friends on the ground, and use technology to advocate for the president’s agenda. That’s what we’re good at, and we’re going to be really focused on that. No one’s ever tried to do this and we’ll make some mistakes just like we did in the campaign, but the truth is that we went out right after the election and surveyed our supporters. Well over a million people answered the survey—87 percent of them said they wanted to work on the president’s legislative agenda, and so that’s what we’re going to do.
C&E: How many folks in the Democratic campaign world are asking you for that OFA database?
Messina: Everybody. And they should. They’d be committing malpractice if they didn’t.
C&E: So what happens with it?
Messina: Well, we’re going to figure that out. The campaign has leased the database to OFA. We’re not going to be involved in campaigns, we’re just going to advocate for the president’s legislative agenda. That’s a very clear line. Through the DNC, and I’m working with Chair Wasserman Schultz on this, we will figure out how to best help Democrats and the DNC win elections. We’ll figure that out. I spent two years of my life building this thing. We predicted our final vote in Florida within .2 percent.
I do think we got the data thing right, and I don’t want it to sit on the shelf. I also want it to be used in a way that makes sense, and part of the lesson we learned in 2010 is too many campaigns went back and ran the same campaign they always run. They didn’t learn those lessons. It’s fair to say we all have to get together and run new kinds of campaigns.
C&E: Was going from two databases in 2008 to just one in 2012 the most important evolution from the first campaign?
Messina: It was that and the new media stuff. Everything in 2008 was communicated through BarackObama.com. I remember Spielberg and Jobs really pushed this with me—we had to be multi-platform in 2012. We had to go meet people where they were. So the president did that famous Reddit deal. We went to Pinterest and organized people, especially women on Pinterest. We had a huge Tumblr campaign. We had separate teams that did nothing but some of these platforms all day, every day. We gave people lots of media tools to organize their friends that we didn’t even conceive of in 2008. But all those things were all about the grassroots. It had to be connected to the door-knocking campaign. The presidential race is covered wall-to-wall every day and both campaigns were at 5,000 or 6,000 points of television a week. What we learned was that you talking to your friends was a very persuasive thing, and if we gave you the right tools and the right training you would do it. We became the first campaign in modern American political history to have a training department in every battleground state. We saw training volunteers as important as cutting TV ads.
C&E: How large were the departments and how often did you have those battleground trainings?
Messina: We did trainings all the time. We started in April of 2011, and we did Adobe Connect trainings where people would come and do virtual trainings in Chicago. So it was them teaching us about what they wanted to do. Very early on I remember our Wisconsin supporters telling us that we needed to play in the recall elections. And I remember thinking, “That’s not a presidential ground.” But in the end, they got more motivated and we had to listen to them. So we ended up telling our volunteers to use the tools, because you’ll be more motivated and you’ll register more voters. It was true.
C&E: I heard a GOP consultant argue recently that the number of users on something like Tumblr is just too low to matter to a presidential campaign. Why is he wrong?
Messina: They matter because those people are politically engaged, active, young and more persuadable. And if they support us, they’ve already shown because they’re on Tumblr that they’re more likely to reach out to their friends and organize. That consultant is using a mindset from a long time ago. I remember one Republican friend of mine giving me grief that we were doing stuff on Pinterest. He said, “That’s where women go to buy clothes.” But they also have conversations, and they see what others are supporting. We sold a whole bunch of t-shirts from our “Runway to Win” line and made a bunch of money because we went to a non-traditional site. People who were thinking about fashion looked and said, “I like Barack Obama. I’ll buy this.” That Republican consultant you quoted wouldn’t have done that.