He was once described as “the most powerful person in Washington you’ve never heard of”.
While Barack Obama delivered a rousing victory speech in Chicago, it was his campaign manager Jim Messina who many were crediting as developing the strategy that kept the US President in the White House for another four years.
‘He knew exactly where everything was going,’ Messina said of Steve Jobs. ‘He explained viral content and how our stuff could break out, how it had to be interesting and clean.’
The 42-year-old has never lost a campaign he has managed since his first race in 1993 when he was still a politics undergraduate.
“The Obama 2008 campaign was certainly a model, and this one’s going to be a model as well too. I’ve talked to Australians here who are involved in politics who say they are always looking back at the Obama campaigns as the gold standard for them,” said Luke Freedman, a US elections analyst at the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre.
Messina was born in Denver, Colorado in 1969. His father left his family when Messina was a young boy and friends said his mother struggled to pay the rent when they lived in Idaho.
From the moment his interest in politics was reportedly piqued in 1980, when he played former US president Jimmy Carter in a mock election and lost to Reagan, Messina was never far from a campaign’s headquarters.
“I miss how bad a campaign office smells at midnight,” Messina said, adding that he once ate 27 consecutive meals at McDonald’s, Mother Jones reported.
In 1993 while studying at the University of Montana, he successfully managed Democrat Dan Kemmis’s re-election bid for mayor of Missoula, Montana. Following his graduation, he worked for Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana, before taking on the roles of chief of staff and adviser for a series of Democratic politicians.
By the time Messina became White House deputy chief of staff in 2008, the young man could count some of the most powerful politicians on Capitol Hill as his allies. He also became known as “mini-Rahm”, a nod to his former boss Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago and renowned for his foul-mouth tirades and aggressive nature.
Messina likes to retell the moment President Obama asked him to become his 2012 re-election campaign manager amid the surf on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in a June profile.
“I’ve got a favour I want to ask,” Obama said to Messina. “I’d like you to run the re-elect.”
Messina replied: “You have to understand, this will be nothing like the last campaign.”
Obama: “I thought the last one went pretty well.”
Messina replied: “It did. But everything is different now.”
The story was Messina’s way of introducing to donors what he believed would be a pivotal part of the re-election campaign – technology.
And in the weeks following his appointment, Messina turned to technology in a big way, tapping the brains trust of some of tech’s most successful entrepreneurs and marketers, including Google’s Eric Schmidt and Apple’s Steve Jobs.
He believed that – with the astronomical amounts of money needed to keep afloat in today’s presidential races – campaigns had to be run like a large corporation.
Jobs, he said, picked holes at the White House’s strategy, but also suggested ways in which they could improve their reach and message to voters.
“He knew exactly where everything was going,” Messina said, Businessweek reported. “He explained viral content and how our stuff could break out, how it had to be interesting and clean.”
Schmidt became a mentor to Messina. The Google co-founder had stepped down from the search giant by the time Messina became campaign manager, and introduced him to a host of Silicon Valley chief executives.
A key feature of the campaign became data.
“We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” Messina said, Time magazine reported in a story yesterday detailing the data crunching efforts of the “Obama for America” team.
The massive data the team sifted through became a closely guarded secret. Various databases were pulled together into a large system that could be accessed by volunteers on a mobile phone app. Staffers and volunteers could then use the “snowflake” model of organising to reach more voters.
Using the data gathered, staffers also developed an “intricate, metric-driven email campaign” that allowed them to test on supporters which emails would attract the most donations. A Quick Donate program to get regular donations from supporters was enlarged after data showed them that these people gave four times as much as other donors.
The data showed that Obama had potential voters on Reddit, and so the President answered a series of questions on the social news website in August.
During the difficult month before the election, polling and other types of data were repeatedly processed. “We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” a senior official told Time.
Messina also looked to the arts and fashion world on how to pitch Obama better to the voters.
Anna Wintour, US Vogue‘s editor-in-chief, taught Messina how to use Obama-themed merchandise to generate more revenue for the campaign. The campaign even held a runway show in New York, where Messina was introduced by actress Scarlett Johansson.
Messina spent time with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who briefed him on what messages got the attention of audience, and reportedly had input into a advertisement against Mitt Romney that highlighted his time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that he co-founded.
“Romney had run on this business record of, ‘I’m a manager, I know how to turn things around’. And the Obama strategy over the summer was to turn that positive into a negative by running these ads in states like Ohio, talking about Romney’s record at Bain Capital – outsourcing, jobs, laying off workers,” Mr Freedman said.
While the negative ad was slammed and described as many commentators as unsuccessful, Mr Freedman said the campaign against the Republican challenger, who was at that time still pre-occupied with the primary, ultimately appeared to be effective in the swing states.
Messina has earned high praise from his predecessor David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign. “We think from a technology and data perspective that what Jim has built will be the best that politics has ever seen,” Plouffe said.
But with the re-election of Obama, Messina is set to grow his appeal beyond the Washington crowd.
And, as Businessweek suggested, maybe the reverse could apply – it would be the chief executives going to Messina for advice.