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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.

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“A simple door knock from a trusted neighbor really mattered more than anything else – to say, ‘Hey, let me tell you why I’m supporting Barack Obama, I live down the street, let me tell you about an issue you care about,’ ” Messina says. “And that, we found, became incredibly important to how people were going to vote.”

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3. Technology is still king. Masses of data about each voter’s political tendencies – gathered through public sources and through campaign contact – allowed Obama for America (OFA) to target voters more precisely than ever before.

One technique the campaign developed was “targeted-sharing,” in which users could send campaign materials to their friends via Facebook.

“You’re going to be wherever the voter is,” Messina said. That meant Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google, and not necessarily BarackObama.com.

OFA’s analytics department of more than 60 full-time people kept the campaign informed on how it was doing on a daily basis.

“We could build support scores for every single voter in battleground states, 1 to 100, on whether they would support us,” Messina said.

“We went in every day" after early voting had started "and sampled people to see whether or not our model was right,” he added. “Our modeling ended up predicting our final vote in Florida within 0.2 percent.”

At the start of the 2012 cycle, one of the smartest pieces of advice Messina says he got came from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told him “you don’t want political people, you want smart people.” The campaign would describe what it wanted, and the tech people would build it.

4. In some ways, the next Democratic nominee will have to start over. Today’s state-of-the-art campaign will be old hat by the beginning of 2015 – the start of the 2016 cycle.

Early in the 2012 cycle (that is, in early 2011) Messina consulted with Steven Spielberg. The filmmaker’s advice: “Blow up the campaign.” In other words, whatever worked in 2008 was by then hopelessly obsolete.

Messina says the same will hold true for the manager of the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign. “Whoever has my job next should blow it up and build their own campaign, because everything will change again in four years,” he said.

5. The future of public polling. Messina had nothing but disdain for the publicly available polls during the 2012 campaign cycle, many of which were off-base. “I think a bunch of polling is broken in the country,” he said.

Part of the issue, he said, is the rise of cell-phone-only households. When those aren’t sampled, or are under-sampled, then pollsters are failing to reach enough young and minority voters. And on all phones, pollsters are now getting response rates under 10 percent. That makes reaching a big enough sample for a credible poll increasingly expensive.

Another mistake pollsters made was to assume an electorate that looked more like the one that voted in 2004 and less like 2008, which had larger-than-usual minority and youth turnout. In the end, 2012 looked like 2008.

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