Jim Messina Obama Insider To Help Social Democrats Challenge Merkel
Campaign strategist and Obama insider Jim Messina wants to help the German Social Democrats beat Angela Merkel. His next stop is Berlin and he will make his first appearance on Saturday. Does the Washington insider know what he's in for?
If you ask around about Jim Messina in Washington, you will get an extremely wide range of reactions. Some believe he is brilliant, others think he's ruthless. But there is one impression that everyone seems to share: "Jim is not afraid of anyone."
That isn't a bad prerequisite for Messina's next job. The 45-year-old Democrat, who organized Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and this year orchestrated British Prime Minister David Cameron's spectacular, nail-biting win, is now getting into German politics. Messina has agreed to a consulting job in Berlin: He wants to help the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) beat Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats in the next national election in 2017.
This Saturday, Messina will make his first appearance in this new capacity. The SPD plans to introduce their new helper for the first time at the so-called "Campaign Camp" in the Schöneberger Gasometer in Berlin. He will report on the newest trends in campaign work: data analysis, addressing voters and online communication.
The new job will likely be highly challenging to Messina for a number of reasons. In Washington, DC and London, he campaigned for incumbents; in Berlin he will work for a party that very few believe has a shot at the chancellorship in 2017. Merkel, in her 10th year as chancellor, is extremely popular, and her party is polling at around 40 percent. The Social Democrats have not been able to benefit from the coalition government they entered into together with her at all. Instead, they are occupied with internal conflicts mainly caused by party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who has recently cemented his image as a politician who flip-flops on the issues. The SPD is polling at around 24 percent.
A Weak Default Candidate
Second, it is not yet clear who the SPD will nominate as its chancellor candidate. The party doesn't have a great pool of possible contenders, making Gabriel, who is vice chancellor, the likely opponent running against Merkel. But current polls indicate that he would lose by 15 to 52 percent. Turning those numbers around will be a huge uphill battle for the SPD and Messina.
Third, Messina has to deal with the challenges of a voting system that differs greatly from the ones in the US and Great Britain. Germany's system is complicated, to the point that not even most Germans completely understand it. There are two votes in general elections. One vote is for a direct candidate, the other one is for a party. That means that every voting district gets a seat in parliament, and the rest are allocated based on the percentage of the vote received nationwide -- i.e. on voters' second votes. Messina will have to find a strategy fitting both, candidates and the party.
In Washington, observers are astonished by his latest moves, with some even finding them to be questionable. The reason is that they fail to see any political consistency in working with Obama, David Cameron and the SPD. More problematic, in their eyes, is that Messina, the Obama insider, has been hired by the SPD to go up against Angela Merkel, with whom the US president has established a good working rapport. This could be seen as a conflict of interest. Messina declined to be interviewed by SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Messina's appearance in Berlin is also risky on a personal level. Germany is not comparable with the US when it comes to electoral campaigns -- it doesn't have the same data, money or room for maneuver.
"His reputation is hanging in the balance: Messina has never lost an election," said a close acquaintance.
What he does bring to the table, however, is a great resumé. At the same time, this is an Obama insider who does not shy away from dirty tricks. In one of his first campaigns for his former boss, Senator Max Baucus, Messina devised a subliminal homophobic television ad directed at Baucus' Republican opponent -- who dropped out of the race shortly thereafter. Messina was also feared as Obama's deputy chief of staff during his first term.
His real passion lies in electoral campaigns, and when it comes time to hit the campaign trail, this is a man for whom life's other pleasures hit the back burner. His diet, for example, often consists of meals from McDonald's. During one campaign, he ate at the fast food chain 27 times consecutively. The burgers were fast and filling.
Messina will not be responsible for the entire campaign at SPD headquarters in Berlin, that much is sure. His role is to optimize the way in which the SPD identifies potential voters. To do this, Messina is working with a German IT firm to put together a database. "We want to reach out to those that a classic campaign would normally miss," said Yasmin Fahimi, who is the party's general secretary.
In the US, Messina turned the campaign into a veritable data war. To find out who to speak with and where to find these voters, Messina's team collected 800 single items of information per voter. He sought advice from Apple founder Steve Jobs, tips from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and asked Steven Spielberg how he should stage it. Obama won, and now Messina is profitting from his techniques.
Still, his analysis hasn't always been right. During the 2014 governor's race in Wisconsin, Messina forecast a loss for incumbent Scott Walker. Walker won and is now in the running for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.
Jiffer Bourguignon and Florian Gathmann contributed to this report from Washington DC and Berlin