Jim Messina has been at this for more than 20 years. He started his career as a campaign manager before he even graduated college; he became locally famous for running the slickest ground game in all of Montana and, this year, in all of electoral politics; and he once vowed never to do anything else.
“I’m going to be that 70-year-old guy managing city council races in Missoula,” President Barack Obama’s campaign manager told the University of Montana’s alumni magazine in 2009. “That’s how I want to die.”
But the man who re-elected the president last November — whose metrics-obsessed Obama for America campaign combined grassroots organizing with technology to exceed the Romney campaign’s wildest fears about Democratic turnout — is now coming to terms with the possibility that he may never manage a campaign again. With Washington celebrating the president’s second and last inauguration, the city’s and the president’s attention have turned firmly away from electoral politics.
Messina, 43, will stay on as the unpaid national chair of OFA’s newest iteration — “Organizing for Action” — as announced Sunday at the “Obama Legacy” confab in D.C., where a crowd of 4,000 former staffers and volunteers gave their campaign manager a standing ovation. But Messina won’t be involved in the operation’s nuts and bolts. That’ll be the job of Jon Carson, a White House aide who will run OFA’s daily doings as executive director.
Messina’s next big move — after managing the biggest presidential campaign in the history of politics — seems as much a mystery to him as it does to his friends and political observers. He says that what he told the Montanan in 2009 — that he’d die running campaigns — still stands, and yet he readily admits that he doesn’t see himself managing a congressional or gubernatorial race, or even another presidential race. Not in the near future, at least. And the most political of political staffers say he hasn’t quite figured out that next move.
“I meant what I said. I get paid to do my favorite thing in the world, which is work on campaigns and help elect progressive Democrats, and so I’ll never stop doing that,” Messina told BuzzFeed. “What role it is will be figured out down the road. I know that the thing I want to do is continue to work on politics and stay connected in some way to Montana. And so I’ll try to find ways to do both of those things.”
Montana is where Messina met Senator Max Baucus — the moderate Montanan Democrat whom he has described as a “father-figure to me” — for whom he would work on and off, beginning in 1995, for more than a decade before leaving for Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.
Asked if he would even run Baucus’s re-election campaign — the senior Senator will be up for his sixth term in 2014 — Messina said, “I’ll obviously support him and help him all I can. I obviously won’t run it.”
“I’m probably not going to go manage other races again, but, you know, I can help — I can give advice,” he said. “I can spend time talking to folks, and I’ll do that for Max and others I believe in very deeply.”
“Honestly, I haven’t figured it out yet,” Messina said. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s next. Right now, I’m trying to figure out the future of OFA, and I’m giving some speeches.”
Messina, for money, will go on the speaking circuit, cashing in at what an industry source estimated is $25,000 to $30,000 a pop. He signed late last year with the firm, Harry Walker Agency, whose site advertises him as “a pioneer in his field” with insight of value to “anyone seeking success through groundbreaking approaches and innovative strategies, whether in business or politics.”
(Robert Gibbs went under contract with the same agency after leaving his post as White House press secretary, and he all but went on tour with Karl Rove throughout much of 2011 and 2012.)
But Messina isn’t the type to collect dust on cable news shows or to relish the hefty paycheck from a speaking gig at a real estate convention in Anytown, U.S.A.
Those who know him well say that what drives Messina is a desire to be in the game, fueled by an innate political instinct that made him one of the best in his business and set him apart as early as his years as a student and fledgling political operative at the University of Montana.
Messina talks about Montana like he was born there. He wasn’t. He’s from a working-class family in Boise, Idaho — raised by a single mother after his father left — and he got himself to the University of Montana in 1991 by way of an interstate scholarship.
(The only story Messina ever tells about Idaho is the time he managed, and lost, Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign in a 4th grade mock election at Roosevelt Elementary School. It was the first loss, and one of the only losses, of Messina’s entire career.)
Montana is where Messina says he “became a man,” and it’s where he has his roots — professional and personal. He owns a house in Missoula, his college town, which he says someday he’ll “end up living in” — and his best friends are from Montana and his fiance is from Montana, too. (The couple, engaged after a trip to Italy last month, was spotted heading into the church with the president early on Inauguration morning.)
“Going to the University of Montana is the single best decision I ever made in my life,” he says.
When Messina got there, one political science professor, Bill Chaloupka, knew immediately that there was something to the scrawny kid who enrolled in his Introduction to Politics course. “It was a large lecture class, but even then, he made his presence known,” remembered Chaloupka.
Messina worked with the professor to enroll in an independent study with the Montana state legislature, working for four representatives. He did so well he got the best internship in the state capitol the following semester, working for the Secretary of State’s office. About a year later, Messina would do a community organizing stint in a mobile home park, helping tenants form a residents’ association with a progressive group called Montana People’s Action.
“He was knocking on doors in the biggest mobile home park in Montana,” said Jim Fleischmann, who ran the group and gave Messina the internship. Fleischmann and Messina would continue to work side-by-side on Montana campaigns in years ahead, and even roomed together during Baucus’s 2002 election when Messina would actually become Fleischmann’s boss. (“The way I tend to think of it is that Jim is my grasshopper,” he says. “I have no doubt that Jim learned things from me, but the student soon surpassed the master.”)
The trailer park work wasn’t glamorous. “That taught me door-to-door organizing,” remembered Messina. “You’re just trying to get people to join you, and it’s tough. Campaigns were easy compared to that.”
“You’re out there with a clipboard and basically going into the living rooms of people’s mobile homes and trying to connect them to what ended up being a movement of mobile home residents,” said Fleischmann. “He did it the real way, and he did it the hard way.”
Messina fell in with Chaloupka and Fleischmann’s group of friends — an older crowd of political operatives and academics who embraced the young college student, though he still looked like he was in high school — he was skinny and his hair was long, and they nicknamed him “Stick Boy” for it.
“He looked like he was 15,” said Chaloupka, still close with Messina. “But he was never really intimidated. And a lot of college students would try to imply that they’re not intimidated — but he really wasn’t. He would just sit right down with a bunch of adults and start asking questions. He was treated as an equal very quickly.”
So much an equal that when Dan Kemmis, Mayor of Missoula, needed a campaign manager to run his re-elect in 1993, Fleischmann and Chaloupka both said that Messina — then still a senior in college — would be the best for the job.
Fleischmann called the Mayor and said, “You need to get to know Jim Messina.”
“Of course I didn’t just take Fleischmann’s word for it,” Kemmis recalled, “but I had a high enough regard for him that at the very least I was going to give Messina a call. I did that and it quickly became clear to me that this was somebody indeed that could help us.”
It wouldn’t be an easy race. Kemmis had just annexed several large areas of Missoula. “Almost a third of my city was not very happy with me and just waiting to show their displeasure,” Kemmis said.
But Messina was an innate campaigner, putting his trust in what Kemmis remembered as an “incredible ground game.”
“It was a very smart ground game that Jim ran, identifying the key precincts where we needed to get out a very substantial vote, and focusing the volunteers in those precincts,” said Kemmis. “Those were the kinds of mechanics that Jim put in place. Having watched Jim basically as a boy put that kind of thing together, I was very impressed.”
In every race he managed from 1993 on, Messina would focus intensely on the hard work of the ground game — on knocking on doors and allocating volunteers efficiently and turning out voters in key precincts. In nearly every postmortem of Obama’s 2012 campaign, the ground game is credited as the most important factor of the president’s winning strategy.
In April of 2011, just as the Obama effort was opening its re-election headquarters at One Prudential Plaza in Chicago, Messina released a campaign briefing video to volunteers that revealed his deep, almost manic obsession with ground game metrics — with literally counting almost every single aspect of the OFA operation.
“This is the thing I’m passionate about. This campaign has to be metrics-driven. We’re gonna measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said. “We’re gonna measure our door-knocks, our phone calls, how many people sign up, our email lists — we’re gonna measure everything. I’m gonna make people here measure political outreach calls. We have to measure, control, and adapt everything. If something’s working, we’re gonna go do a bunch of it. If something’s not working, we’re gonna throw it out. We’re gonna not be wedded to any single thing that we’ve done before. We’ve gotta just measure, grow, and adapt.”
He promised to measure everything — and he did.
The day before the election, on Nov. 5, Messina tweeted, “Real ground game numbers don’t end in zero: OFA Ohio knocked on 376,151 doors across the state yesterday.”
The very first traces of Messina’s obsession with the ground game appeared, in large part, with Dan Kemmis’s Missoula mayoral campaign.
“In Montana, the ground game is absolutely crucial,” said Messina. “We’re a state where the plurality of people are independents. You can’t write off any voters, you gotta talk to everybody, and persuasion matters. Very early on in the Obama race we said we wanted to run a series of governor’s races at the state level, and at the precinct level, we wanted to run a series of city council races.”
“That’s what you do when you’re in Montana,” he said.
In November of 1993 — on the night of the election of the first campaign he ever managed — Messina was confident in the operation he had run on the ground, even as early results indicated that Kemmis was lagging behind.
At one point in the night, Kemmis’s wife turned to Messina and told him she was worried.
He told his boss’s wife: “I am not here to lose this election.”
“And he meant it,” remembered Kemmis, who did end end up winning re-election that year. “He had intended to win from the beginning and he was going to win. He of course was keeping track of those returns in, by then, a more knowledgeable way than even I was. He knew that the precincts that he had been working on hadn’t been reported yet and would come through for us. But that was the kind of intensity he had.”
Even when Messina was off the campaign trail — serving as President Obama’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from 2009 to 2011 — he treated policy initiatives like campaigns in miniature that he wouldn’t and couldn’t lose.
At the Democratic National Convention, Messina spoke at a meeting of the LGBT Caucus and told the story of the day President Obama asked him to work on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” legislation. The way Messina told it — the way he thought about it in retrospect — made the story less about gay rights, and more about winning.
“I was in the White House,” Messina started, “and one day they said, ‘The president wants to see you.’ I said, ‘Okay good.’ And I went in there and I said, ‘How can I help you?’ And he’s like, ‘You’re gonna run Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ And I said, ‘Why? I don’t have any history with that? I don’t know the issue? ’ And he said, ‘Because I want to win.’”
That Lombardi-esque approach to politics has sometimes rubbed more ideological Democrats, from Helena to Washington, the wrong way.
One of Messina’s other political science professors, Paul Haber, taught a class on progressive social movements that he just couldn’t get Messina — more interested at the time in being “a player” — engaged in on the level of ideology.
“The star potential was anything but evident in my class,” remembered Haber. “My memory was that he didn’t even show up to class that much. He just wasn’t engaged. The study of social movements has a utopian dimension to it, and Jim never seemed interested in big social change agenda — he was interested in Democratic Party politics, that was always clear.”
“He’s a player. He was born to run campaigns,” said Haber.
What was also clear about Messina’s time in Montana was the fact — not lost in the least on Messina himself — that the state in particular allowed him to excel at the game of politics. The rural college-town community of Missoula was small enough to allow a 21-year-old to manage a mayoral campaign, and smart enough to recognize Messina as a kid born with keen political instincts no matter what the race.
“I was struck by how unusual it was that somebody so young would be attuned to the dynamics of politics,” said Kemmis. “It may seem like a ridiculous comparison, but it reminded me of Mozart the boy genius. You have to ask, where did all that musical knowledge come from. It was that way with Jim. You sensed he was almost born with it. I don’t know if there ever was a twice-born political campaigner, but if there was it’d be Jim Messina.”
Messina insists he still doesn’t know what he’s doing next. But it will likely put those instincts to work — and it will even more likely have something to do with Montana. On the Sunday night before the Inauguration, Messina hosted a group of his friends from the state at his house for “a dinner to just say ‘thank you,’” Messina said. “It’s just a whole bunch of Montanans and a whole bunch of red wine.”
Dave Hunter, a close friend and Montana Democratic operative who flew into D.C. for the dinner and Inauguration, also didn’t have any guesses about what Messina would be doing.
“Campaign work is a grind, and there are tons of people who do one or two campaigns and decide it’s too grueling and get out, but Jim’s been going it for 20 years,” said Hunter. “You don’t do it for as long as Jim has and then stop.”
“People who have run other presidentials have had lots of options. I still turn on the TV and see [Mondale campaign manager] Bob Beckel 30 years later,” said Hunter, adding that Messina wouldn’t want the life of a cable news contributor. “Jim likes the excitement and adrenaline.”
“I do think it’s probably a hard question for him — figuring out what to do next that makes sense. But he could probably have any campaign job he wanted in the country,” said Hunter.
But what job — and where you go after running the top campaign in the history of electoral politics — is a question still on the minds of several Obama for America staffers. OFA battleground states director Mitch Stewart and national field director Jeremy Bird just last week announced they’d open a consulting firm, 270 Strategies, out of Washington, D.C. And Stephanie Cutter, the campaign’s top communications staffer, is also, former colleagues said, mulling a move to consulting.
Messina, though, faces a particular problem: How to find the sort of political challenge and adrenaline rush to follow one of the most convincing — and, in some ways, surprising — victories in American political history.
“I love politics,” said Messina. “Whatever role I have in the future, I wanna be doing that, and I’ll figure out how to do that. But I do know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”