The pivot in 2011 was just one of the ways the Obama campaign had to be alive to outside voices. One day former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called to say that the campaign was targeting Puerto Rican voters the wrong way. Messina listened and changed the approach.
Messina and the other Obama strategists were listening to the voices of doubt, too. Interviews with a variety of members of the Romney campaign suggest that they never seriously entertained the most pessimistic scenarios about voter turnout. (Senior adviser Kevin Madden discussed this with me at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday.) They never thought Democrats would turn out in the numbers that they did. At the Obama headquarters, they took a more skeptical approach. “There was a lot of pressure on us about whether or not we were too insular. We did get out and go around the country and learn from folks to make sure that we weren’t believing our own bullshit. I said to our team, ‘Check ’em again, make sure we’re right.’ There’s a tendency to be slave to your own data, even if it’s wrong. Garbage in, garbage out. Seven days out I asked our pollsters and analytics folks to scrub the numbers. Recheck everything and recheck assumptions. Let’s say their turnout explodes, how many states do we still win?”
At one point during the exercise, the campaign’s chief analytics staffer ran a model with Republican turnout 8 percentage points above what the Obama campaign was planning for it to be. The scenario had Obama winning with 271 electoral votes. “He said, ‘Jim we’re going to win this,’ ” recalls Messina.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t nervous. “We believed in our data, but I’d be lying if I said that all these wrong polls and nervous supporters didn’t make us recheck things.”
If some channels of communication were open to the campaign, others were closed. “The single smartest thing the president did was put the headquarters in Chicago. We could sit in that office and stay focused. During the debt limit crisis I was in the bathroom washing my hands and a software engineer said, ‘Hey, is anything going on in D.C.?’ They were busy building these cool tools we were going to need in a year and a half. That happened as well after the first debate. People came unglued, but we were worried about early voting starting and what we were doing on the ground.”
Strategists for political campaigns will go to school on the Obama 2012 campaign the way they did the Obama 2008 effort. Messina warns against that. “I studied every campaign for the last 60 years, and the ones that tried to run a re-elect like the first one ended up losing.” His first piece of advice for his campaign was to learn the best lessons of 2008 and then forget 2008. “If we’d just slapped ‘Hope’ on a bumper sticker this time, it wouldn’t have worked.” Being so free to discard the past is not a common trait in political campaigns, which have a special place for wise old hands. “I think the days where you sit back in a back room and smoke cigars and say, ‘this is how you win Waukesha’—those days are over. I’ve been doing this 20 years, and a lot of what is in politics is sheer B.S. It’s people’s opinions giving answers to questions that are actually quantifiable.”
It’s a not just a theory. He has the numbers to prove it.