Tories hire Obama campaign chief Jim Messina

Allegra Stratton
Political editor, BBC Newsnight
@BBCAllegraon Twitter

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A fellow presidential aide described Jim Messina as "the most powerful person in Washington you've never heard of"

The Conservative Party has hired Barack Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina for its general election campaign team, BBC Newsnight has learned.

Sources confirmed that he would act as a campaign strategy adviser to the Conservative party.

A lifelong Democrat, Mr Messina masterminded the US president's successful 2012 re-election campaign.

The political parties in Westminster are readying themselves for the general election, now under two years away.

Image caption,
The Conservatives hired Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, known as the Wizard of Oz, in November

The Conservative Party hired Australian strategist Lynton Crosby in November.

The Tories are hoping to emulate Mr Obama's re-election against a backdrop of economic problems. Many other governments that have sought re-election during economic turbulence have been punished by voters at the ballot box.

The Conservatives are also thought to hope that Mr Messina will bring to their operation the same binding marriage of social media and political organisation that many in the US credit with securing Mr Obama a second term.

Mr Crosby is said to admit privately that this area is not his strength.

Mr Messina will not lead the campaign as he did in the US, sources said, but instead will be "reporting in to the Conservatives' senior management team", and remain based in the US.

He will report directly to Mr Crosby and Conservative Party co-chairmen Grant Shapps and Lord Feldman. Conservative sources stressed he would have no involvement in party policy.

Speaking of his appointment, Mr Messina told Newsnight:

"I have long admired Prime Minister Cameron. While I will not be moving to London, nor will I be managing any type of day to day political operations, I will be offering strategic campaign advice leading up to 2015."

The Conservative leadership will have to work hard to ensure their 2015 campaign does not fall victim to the same issues as the 2010 general election strategy, when, observers believe, there was a problem with too many important voices at the top of the campaign, including Steve Hilton, George Osborne and Andy Coulson.

Leading thinkers

Having worked for Democrat senators and Congress representatives, Mr Messina became Mr Obama's deputy chief of staff in 2008. At that time another of the president's advisers, Dan Pfeiffer, described Mr Messina as "the most powerful person in Washington you've never heard of".

In 2011 Mr Obama asked him to leave his job at the White House and decamp to Chicago to head up his re-election strategy there.

Image source, other
Image caption,
Mr Messina became Mr Obama's deputy chief of staff in 2008 before leaving to oversee his re-election campaign

Before he began he canvassed the opinion of some of America's leading CEOs and cutting edge thinkers: Google's Eric Schmidt advised him on managing the information and resources of a billion-dollar re-election team; Apple's Steve Jobs spoke to him about increasing message reach; Steven Spielberg about how to capture the attention of the American public; Vogue's Anna Wintour gave him tips on Obama-themed merchandise.

Alongside these conversations Mr Messina is also said to have read up on 100 years' worth of campaign histories.

His central insight for the Obama 2012 project was that the campaign would be very different from the 2008 campaign, which was characterised by upbeat feel-good messages. This time round it would require meticulous gathering and monitoring of voter information.

The 2012 campaign spent greater time and resources highlighting the negative qualities of Mr Obama's Republican rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, and it placed a huge emphasis on the exploitation of technology.

Headache for Labour

In January 2013, Mr Messina began a new post-election role as the head of Organizing for America, the new identity of the Obama for America database which he had run during the 2012 election campaign. The organisation is devoted to mobilising support for legislation in Obama's second term.

There are already established links between UK Prime Minister David Cameron's team and Mr Obama's Democrats.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
In 2012 Mr Cameron visited the US in a trip widely seen as an endorsement of Mr Obama

In the run-up to the TV debates of the 2010 UK general election campaign, the Tories brought Obama adviser Anita Dunne over to advise Mr Cameron on how to handle the debates, which are a familiar feature of US presidential races.

Then, in the year of the presidential election, Mr Cameron flew to the US in a trip interpreted by many as an endorsement of Mr Obama. Mr Cameron travelled with Mr Obama to watch a college basketball match in the crucial swing state of Ohio, and heavily praised the US president in his state dinner speech.

As deputy chief of staff to Mr Obama, Mr Messina helped get Congress to its 2010 vote paving the way for gay people in the military. In the UK, Mr Cameron faced deep hostility in his own party, in the Church and across the country for driving through legislation to allow gay marriage.

The appointment of Mr Messina is likely to worry Labour leader Ed Miliband, who so far has put in place markedly less of his general election campaign and is privately being urged to make progress.

Mr Miliband might have hoped to secure a big Obama hire for his own efforts.

For more on this watch Allegra Stratton's report on BBC Newsnight on Friday 2 August at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.