C&E: What’s the focus at The Messina Group and how will you balance that with OFA?
Jim Messina: We are going to help campaigns, nonprofits and corporations learn the lessons of the Obama campaign, especially in regards to grassroots, new media and data. OFA is one of the most important things obviously. I’m also helping the Democratic National Committee think about their future and what they’re doing. I’m doing some consulting work with some nonprofits who want to learn how to really reach out at a grassroots level and talk to folks.
C&E: How do you apply those Obama campaign lessons on a smaller scale?
Messina: The fundamental basis is that a lot of those campaign volunteers worked because they cared about Barack Obama and I don’t think that’s transferable. But the lessons are transferable. We did over 140 new pieces of technology and changed American politics. We changed the way we think polling and data is handled. And we had a commitment to the grassroots that generated a much bigger turnout than people were expecting, especially Mitt Romney. Those lessons are very transferable.
C&E: You and others call the 2012 campaign the greatest grassroots effort in the history of politics. How did you conceptualize and build that between 2008 and 2012?
Messina: The 2008 campaign was the most special campaign we’ve ever been involved in, but there were really two Obama campaigns [that year]. There was the online campaign that was driven early on by our supporters—that was everything from the Meetup stuff they were doing before the president got in the race to Will.i.am’s song. Even the stuff we were doing in the general election on BarackObama.com wasn’t really connected to the other piece, which was the grassroots. Our goal in 2012, and I’m proud to say that we got there, was to burst the wall between those two and say to you, “I don’t care when you organize, what time of the day you organize or where you organize, as long as I can track it, measure it and use it to get you to organize your friends and family.” We were able to give you a host of tools that were used simply to organize you and your friends. The most successful and famous of all of them was targeted sharing on Facebook. Over 5.5 million people used it to match their friends with our lists. The campaign would give you a list of your friends who were undecided and say, “Go at it.” A large percentage of people, especially young people, used that to organize their friends. We were able to use data to make our volunteers’ time more efficient.
My favorite story is from a volunteer in Wisconsin 10 days out [from Election Day]. She was knocking on doors on one side of the street and the Romney campaign was knocking on doors on the other side of the street. She was asked to hit two doors. One was an undecided voter and she knew exactly what to say. The other was an absentee ballot and she was told to make sure they filled it out and returned it. On the other side of the street, the Romney campaign was knocking on every single door. Most of the people weren’t home, and most of the people that were home were already supporting Barack Obama. She looked at me and said, “You’re using my time wisely.” That’s what data can do.
C&E: And at the same time it gives volunteers more of a sense that they’re having an impact.
Messina: Absolutely. It allows us to use our most precious commodity, which is volunteer time, more effectively. And we weren’t perfect at this, but as we got through the campaign we got better and better at it. We had this amazing gift called 2011. While the other side was doing their stuff, we were studying and learning and making mistakes much like Bush did in 2004 and Clinton did in 1996.
C&E: How vast is the technology gap between the two parties?
Messina: Right now it is vast. Having been on panels with the Romney campaign after the election, I think the data we were seeing was very different than the data they were seeing, and our voter contact tools were more advanced. But in 2004, George Bush was much more advanced than the Democrats, and we spent eight years learning lessons and experimenting to be able to change the game. So my biggest piece of advice to the person who has my job next time is to not run the same campaign I did, because the technology will change. I said to Obama the day he asked me to run the campaign, “I want you to promise me we’re not going to run the same campaign we ran in 2008.” Everything had changed. Facebook was ten times the size. We sent out one tweet on Election Day 2008, because Twitter was still new technology. Smartphones hadn’t really evolved yet. So we set out with a really tough goal for an incumbent: change everything.
C&E: On the digital side, you almost seemed to be in a different world from the Romney campaign. How much attention did you pay to what they were doing online?
Messina: We understood very early we had to change the game and develop some things that had never been developed, especially on our tech team. Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, said something very wise to me: “Don’t hire very many political people. Hire people who are really conversant in tech and understand where the future is. You can draw on a whiteboard what you want and they’ll build it for you.” That was really good advice. There were definitely growing pains. I remember taking one of our technology and data teams to the Wisconsin recall elections [in 2011] and having them knock on doors and they came back and said, “I’ve never done that before, but now I understand what you’re asking me to build.” That was an interesting process.
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.