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

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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.

You're not just trying to scare people into giving money?

I've been saying to you guys in the national press for six months that we're going to get outspent. No one believed me. You're all writing your billion-dollar stories, and I was out there denying it to anyone who would listen to me. Yes, we're going to be outspent. We're going to be back to where we were with Kerry and Clinton with being marginally outspent.

There's a sense these days that the Romney campaign is surging and Obama is on the ropes. A lot of Democrats seem awfully scared. Is the campaign more competitive than you expected a few months ago?

I have said for a very long time, we knew for a very long time, that once Romney won the primary he would consolidate Republican voters and this thing would tighten up. This country is divided politically. 2008 was the first landslide election we've had in a very long time. This election is going to be close like the others have been. We've been preparing for that, that's why we have such a huge organization on the ground out there.

You recently recorded a video briefing where you said, "Over the past few weeks, I've had people asking me about all the polls they're seeing." That seems to imply you're doing a bit of hand-holding with anxious supporters. What's the feedback you're getting from your people? What's their mood?

It's fired up and ready to go. The primaries went on forever and we were just out here kind of building quietly. Now they get who Romney is, what his positions are. They're excited about the president. Our volunteer numbers have been amazing, our low-donor stuff is cranking. People understand what we've got to do to get this done, but they're very clear-eyed about the challenges and we've been very honest about it. And we've got to continue to be. Because, you know, for every incumbent -- I went and studied 100 years of campaigns -- for every incumbent their supporters were always less understanding of how tough these races are. And I think that's why we've been very honest with people about how close this is going to be.

What have you learned so far about your opponent? What has surprised you about the Romney campaign?

I think they're very talented. I think, first of all, Romney is a seriously underrated debater. I may be one of the only Americans who watched all 22, 23 of the [Republican primary] debates -- those are times I want back. But the truth is, he understood what his job in all those debates was. When it was to go out and finish Rick Perry, he did it. When it was to hold the lead in New Hampshire, he did it. And he is a great debater. Someone who used to work with him said to me, and I think it's right, he was the guy that you took in at the end to seal the deal, because he knew how to do it. The other thing is, I think they have been very smart about the way they've used super PACs to do their attacking for them. They've been like a dog without a bone. They've been very focused, laser focused.

We understand what we need to do, not freaking out about polls or whatever, just, 'This is what we need to do, let's go do it.' Part of that is [Obama's] wisdom of putting us here [in Chicago]. I knew it was the right thing to do when he wanted to do it, but now I think it's the single smartest decision we've made. We sit here every day away from D.C. and you guys and lobbyists and people who would make us change our strategy 10 times and come unglued -- as my brother Plouffe called them, the bed-wetters -- and just build what we need to do in the states.

Everyone in that room is focused on giving people in Nevada and Colorado and New Hampshire and Iowa what they need to win, and that's all we should be doing. A lot of the kind of handwringing that you were just talking about, we just don't hear it because we're not in D.C., we're not in New York, we're not in L.A., we're not in the media centers.

What's the argument you need to make to win this election?

Look, elections are about choices, and if this is a choice between where we're going and who has the best plan to get there, we'll win that election. We'll win that choice. We've got to be very clear about that choice. You saw us talk about, in our first ad, what we inherited, and Americans understand very clearly what we inherited, and where we want to go. I'll give the other side credit, they've been very honest about where they want to take this country. As have we. They want to go right back to the same policies that failed the first time, back to letting Wall Street write its own regulations, back to tax cuts we can't afford to pay [for], saying it was a tragic mistake to get out of Iraq and that he wants to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. These are not things that the average voter wants. Our job is to tell that story.

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

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