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Electing a president: Five insights from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina

Conventional wisdom held that Team Obama would not be able to generate the turnout numbers in 2012 that it had in 2008. What campaign manager Jim Messina did to reelect the president.

By Staff writer / November 20, 2012

President Barack Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina sits in a motorcade vehicle before departing for the the University of Denver for first debate of the 2012 presidential election.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Washington

Depending on one’s politics, Jim Messina is either a conquering hero or a figure of intense envy.

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Either way, the manager of President Obama’s successful reelection campaign was the man of the hour in Washington Tuesday, when he sat down for a chat with Politico’s Mike Allen before a standing-room-only crowd.

Mr. Messina’s story begins with the president asking him to build a grassroots-oriented campaign. By doing that, Messina said, “that’s how we got to turnout numbers that a whole bunch of people spent 18 months telling me we couldn’t get to.”

Specifically, Republicans and other political observers insisted the Obama campaign would not be able to turn out minorities, women, and young voters in numbers that matched the 2008 campaign.

Amid high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, the enthusiasm just wasn’t there, Team Obama kept hearing. Many public polls seemed to bear that out. But the result proved otherwise.

“We built the biggest grassroots campaign in modern American political history,” Messina said.

So how did that work, exactly? Here are five takeaways from Messina’s remarks:

1. Voters have to be wooed. In other words, you can’t just build it (a campaign) and assume they (voters) will come. Messina says it starts with the candidate: “We won this election because of Barack Obama.”

The next step is to run a “sustained operation,” with lots of voter contact. In the 2010 midterms, Democrats thought they could put Obama’s picture on a piece of literature and his supporters would “magically” turn out for them, Messina said.

“It doesn’t work like that,” he said. There needs to be “an ongoing conversation about why they should support the president, about why they should get out and vote.”

In September 2011, the Obama campaign launched Operation Vote, which focused on eight target groups: women, blacks, seniors, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Jews, gays, and young voters. With African-Americans, for example, there was particular outreach at beauty parlors, barber shops, black-owned businesses, and historically black colleges.

2. Door-knocking will only grow in importance. A flood of money from outside groups – a result of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United – created a “huge cacaphony of television” in the final months of the campaign, making it harder for any one message to stand out.

Targeted door-knocking – only going to doors where you know the voter is persuadable or perhaps just needs a nudge to hand in their absentee ballot – became a way to rise above the din.

“Door-knocking is going to be even more important in the future,” says Messina.

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