The British Conservative Party's hiring of Jim Messina, the mastermind of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, may seem an unusual choice at first glance. A proud Westerner and life-long Democrat, Jim Messina cuts a far different figure than the Oxford-educated Prime Minster David Cameron. However, Messina brings a revolutionary, data-driven style of political campaigning to the Tory team, promising a revitalization of Cameron's political fortunes and a sea change in the way that campaigns are run.
Messina is known by many as "the most powerful person in Washington you've never heard of." A career-long Democratic political adviser, Messina was picked up as President Obama's deputy chief of staff in 2008, but was soon tapped to head his re-election campaign. Messina is credited not only for securing President Obama's re-election, but also for revolutionizing political campaigning. He spearheaded an intensely statistics-based operation that harnessed social media and grassroots political organization, utilizing previously untapped resources such as Facebook ads and personalized emails to raise $1 billion and grow the electoral map for the president.
Political organizers have mined consumer data since the Bush campaigns of the early 2000s, but Messina pushed these operations to a new level of sophistication. Under Messina, campaigners ran around 66,000 computer simulations a day to model how likely voters were to show up at the polls. They then were able to target Obama sympathizers with weak voting habits, such as those who had voted for the president in 2008 but had since unsubscribed from the campaign email list.
Instead of sticking to traditional television ads, the Messina team took a new tack, using social media tools such as Facebook to replicate traditional mass canvassing tactics to target these weak voters. For example, a Facebook application was developed in the final weeks before the election that allowed users to reach out to friends in swing states and encourage them to register to vote or to show up to the polls. Stunningly, one out of five people contacted this way followed their friend's suggestion.
This data-driven, technology-led method of campaigning – known as the "moneyball" approach to elections, after Michael Lewis' 2003 book about the Oakland Athletics' sabermetric approach to the game – is relatively untested in the United Kingdom. And no matter how effective Messina's micro-targeting operations have been for President Obama, David Cameron's electoral obstacles may prove unassailable. Among other hurdles, Britain's economy is limping along at a 0.6% growth rate, Tory voters are balking at their party's tolerant stance on gay marriage, and the Labour party maintains a 9% lead over the Tories, despite the remarkable unpopularity of Labour's Ed Miliband.
All may not be lost for David Cameron. 85% of Conservative voters favor the prime minister and Messina's targeted approach may coax enough of them to the polls to secure an electoral victory. Regardless of the outcome in 2015, however, Prime Minster Cameron's decision to hire Messina represents an acknowledgement that moneyball is the new game in town and that it isn't going anywhere.