How Worried Is the Obama Campaign? A Q&A With Campaign Manager Jim Messina

Even as Democratic doubts about the president's prospects have increased in recent weeks, the man in charge of the reelection effort projects confidence.

CHICAGO -- The previous few days had not been kind to the Obama reelection effort when I sat down with campaign manager Jim Messina in his sparsely decorated office earlier this month. A Republican win in the Wisconsin recall had invigorated the GOP and raised fresh questions about the president's chances in the Midwest, while the news that Mitt Romney's campaign had outraised Obama by nearly $17 million in the month of May had Democrats newly anxious about their ability to compete.

But Messina, 42, a tall, ruddy-faced redhead with roots in the mountain West, projected an unperturbed vibe. A pragmatist and tactician, he puts his faith in maps and data and shares Obama's above-the-fray sensibility. Here, he talks about the campaign's fundraising deficit, Romney's debating skills, and why he doesn't pay attention to the "bed-wetters" who question campaign strategy. This interview has been condensed and edited.

What, in your view, is the current state of the campaign? Are you worried?

I think we have many more pathways to 270 electoral votes than they do. And I continue to believe we have an advantage on the ground. We've been organizing in some of these communities for five straight years. And so we have neighborhood team leaders who know everyone in their neighborhoods. That's true in all the battleground states.

I believe we've continued to expand the map in ways that are really important. For a decade, Democrats put all their hopes onto Florida and Ohio, and sometimes they won and sometimes they lost.

You put a lot of stock in the ground game, but in the Wisconsin recall, that wasn't enough to put Democrats over the top. Was Wisconsin evidence that Republicans have caught up in terms of organization?

I don't believe that's true across the country. Just look at -- Florida's a great example, Ohio's another one. We have double-digit, huge numbers of field offices open in all of these places, they have two or three. I think Wisconsin, because of recalls and stuff, you could argue both sides have had a lot of opportunities to test it. That's not true in these other states. You just don't see the investment.

In many ways that's more important to us than them, because we have to go out and expand the electorate. We have to go register more people and get more people to vote, and they obviously don't want that to happen.

Is that an admission that you can't win with the existing electorate?

We have more opportunity out there. We do better with young people, we do better with the growing Latino population. People who are more likely to be unregistered are Democrats. Every demographer will tell you that. For me it's just a cold-eyed assessment of where we go get votes, and that's why you go register more people. It has nothing to do with the existing electorate.

What lessons did you take from the Wisconsin recall?

I don't think a lot. I mean, we're not going to get outspent 8 to 1, which is what [Republican Gov. Scott] Walker just outspent [Democratic candidate Tom] Barrett. I think that every poll, including the Marquette poll and the exits, all say the same thing, which is Barack Obama has the advantage in Wisconsin.

You are going to be outspent, though, don't you think?

Yes. With the combination of super PACs and Romney, we will be outspent. But not 8 to 1.

How concerned are you about the super PACs?

Look, I think there's two things that are challenges we didn't have last time. One is, of course, the super PACs and Citizens United. And you know that's true because the super PACs went a long way towards purchasing the primary for Mitt Romney. In 2008, there was somewhere between $10 and $15 million of outside spending in the general election against Barack Obama. There's been $76 million since the first of the year. That's just a light-year increase. I think it's long-term really bad for our democracy, but short-term, just for our campaign, it's a challenge. And then second, these voter suppression efforts in these states. Over 30 states have passed laws making it harder to vote in the past 18 months. That's a challenge.

You say you're not worried about the state of the campaign, but the emails you send to campaign supporters have taken on a pretty alarmed tone. There was one the other day that said, "What just happened in Wisconsin wasn't an accident."

Part of why we do so well at the grassroots fundraising level is that we have very candid and honest conversations with our supporters. I remember [2008 campaign manager David] Plouffe telling me this in '08 when he did a video and shared it with me and said, hey, think this is OK? And he laid out exactly what we were going to spend in Florida. And I said, 'You can't do this.' And he very smartly said, 'Jim, if supporters don't understand it, if they're not a part of it, they're not going to support it.' And that's exactly right. We're going out with another email about Romney and the RNC's numbers, to say, Look, this is real. We are going to get outspent here, we've got to answer this call. That is really refreshing. It's the kind of campaign I want to be a part of. It's why we have such a major advantage on small donors, and it's how we're going to win this election.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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