HELENA – After managing President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign last year, Jim Messina came away with an important lesson about how Americans make their political decisions today.
“Because of the diffusion of American media, TV is less important than it used to be,” Messina said in an interview Saturday. “Person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor communication is the way people now make political decisions, in a way that has not been true for a very long time.”
Messina, 43, was in Helena to be one of the headliner speakers at the Montana Democratic Party’s annual Mansfield-Metcalf dinner. He is a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and is a University of Montana graduate.
In the last week of the 2008 campaign between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, the campaigns, including in Montana, bought about 2,000 gross rating points, or 20 television ads a week.
Everything changed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that opened the floodgates for campaign money, Messina said. In the final week of the 2012 race between Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney, the super-PACs and the campaigns bought an unprecedented 8,000 gross rating points on television.
In October, Messina said he met a family in Denver with a 3-year-old son. The parents told said when Obama appeared on TV, they asked their son who he was. The boy correctly identified Obama by name. The parents asked their son what Obama does for a living.
“He approves this message,” the boy replied.
To the child, Obama was just the guy on television.
“That was a fairly good reminder to me that TV is obviously the dominant form of communications,” Messina said. “But what is more important – and our research clearly showed this – is at the end what your friends and family and neighbors all said and thought about politics to you mattered more than all that stuff.”
That’s especially true in a presidential race, where everyone knows the candidates and their positions on issues, he said.
“They just need to make sure that their opinions and their thoughts are reinforced by people they trust to help them make a decision on politics,” Messina said. “That’s something I learned in organizing campaigns in Montana a very long time ago, and it turned out to be true at the presidential level as well.”
Another major takeaway from the campaign, Messina said, was how technology and new media has changed by light years since 2008 when he was chief of staff on the Obama campaign. By 2012, Facebook was 10 times larger than it was in 2008, he said.
“On Election Day in 2008, we send out one tweet because we thought it was a silly technology that would never go anywhere,” Messina said. “Now Twitter is one of the ways people communicate.”
By 2012, Messina said he didn’t care if Obama supporters organized people online or did it in their neighborhood on the doors, “just as long as I can track it.
“We were able to really able to change the way you do politics because of technology,” Messina said.
He said the Obama campaign was able to use data in a way no other campaign has. When 85 percent of political analysts thought Obama was going to be defeated, Messina said, “We knew we were going to win.”
About 10 days before the election, Obama asked Messina to travel from Chicago to meet with him in Wisconsin where he was campaigning. The president asked Messina what the latest campaign numbers showed.
“Every single night, we computer-simulated the election 66,000 times, for a year,” Messina said. “That night, my model said he was going to win 332 electoral votes, which is exactly what he won. And Gallup had him down two or three points that day.
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Are you right?’ And I was sure we were right.”
Polling is broken in America for various reasons, Messina said. One reason is pollsters aren’t adequately reaching the many voters who use cellphones exclusively and no longer have landline phones.
He recently formed the Messina Group, a three-person consulting firm in Washington, D.C., to advise political campaigns and nonprofit groups on the lessons they learned in the Obama campaign, especially grass-roots organizing, new media and technology. Among his clients is the Democratic National Committee.
Baucus, who is running for a seventh term in the Senate, isn’t one of Messina’s clients, but Messina added: “I will do anything I can to help him. I think his re-election is crucial for Montana. I think Max Baucus will absolutely be re-elected because he does what’s right for Montana.”
Messina also is the unpaid national chairman of Organizing for Action, a nonprofit advocacy group.
He also is giving paid speeches around the world.
On Sunday, he and his fiancee, Taya Cromley of Billings, will drive back to Washington, D.C.