The incumbent was underwater. Low poll numbers and a still-sluggish economy, soaring campaign promises of hope and change that never quite materialised. The opposition attacked him; so did some of the ideological absolutists in his own camp.
That’s the situation Jim Messina inherited when he took the helm of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2011. And it applies to the thicket of problems he’s going to confront as the newly announced senior adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 re-election campaign.
On the surface it is an odd-couple pairing – the University of Montana Democrat and the Oxford-educated Conservative. But Mr Obama and Mr Cameron are both pioneering members of Generation X, indulging in modest relatable rebellion before reaching the highest elected office in their land. Both men campaigned as candidates of generational change, presenting themselves as post-partisan coalition builders and rapidly rising to prominence on the strength of their speeches. Neither man entered office with much executive experience and the old political aphorism that “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose” quickly hobbled sky-high expectations.
But Mr Messina distinguished himself as an all-purpose Mr Fix-It on the first Obama campaign and subsequently as a deputy chief of staff in the White House. Understated and practical, Mr Messina was the ER doctor called in to help pass high-stakes bills like health care reform when they looked like they were on life-support. A long-time Capital Hill staffer, the Wilco-loving 40-something understood the mechanics of Washington politics – and could quietly twist arms, massage egos and get things done.
Fitting for a former field organiser, Mr Messina does not take the mechanics of campaigns for granted – he knows that votes are won or lost by direct contact in communities rather than just by carpet-bombing the airwaves. His Western roots also provided a necessary check and balance to the Ivy-League urban sensibilities of the Obama inner-circle.
But his real insight in the 2012 campaign was to marry the individual contact philosophy of a field campaign with a massive but still targeted social media strategy. For example. while the Romney campaign was spending millions on negative television ads, Mr Messina saw that online platforms like Facebook were being all but ignored by the Republicans, creating room to present a positive digital grassroots message for the president that resonated with the millennial generation, who are understandably allergic to polarising, hyper-partisan appeals.
As a result the 2012 Obama campaign shocked the political world by actually growing the electoral map for the incumbent, despite conventional wisdom that said the president would be unable to sustain the kind of record-breaking turnout he enjoyed in his first campaign. In addition, historic precedent said that presidential elections are essentially referendums on the economy.
But in 2012, the old rules were thrown out and new rules established. Then again, politics is not a science – at its best it’s an art, and its worst it is something like a war. And in all cases, success is the only proof point that matters.
The combination of data-driven ground game, relentless messaging and sophisticated social media is Mr Messina’s signature and it is what he’ll be delivering to the Cameron campaign from his perch across the Atlantic. Like many former Obama senior staffers, Mr Messina has now entered the lucrative world of consulting, forming The Messina Group. But unlike the Clintonista consultants who helped get Tony Blair elected more than a decade ago with his Third Way framing, Mr Messina is showing a willingness to work outside partisan lines, signing up with the Conservatives instead of Labour. This makes more sense when you consider that Mr Cameron’s policies – such as support for gay marriage and confronting climate change – would probably make him a centrist Democrat in the United States.
This hire is a coup in large part because it highlights the fact that the Third Way is alive and well – but it extends beyond the confines of party label. In addition, the gravity-defying personal good will that exists for Mr Obama and to a lesser extent Mr Cameron can be translated to election day support in the face of uninspiring alternatives.
The biggest hurdle will be the fundamental difference between presidential and parliamentary systems – remember that Mr Obama was re-elected despite Republicans maintaining control of the House of Representatives, an outcome that would be all but impossible in the UK. But Mr Messina specialises in cases that are considered Mission Impossible by more conventional operatives and Mr Cameron can now credibly say, for better or worse, that Team Obama is on his side.