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Jim Messina interview: how the pollsters got it wrong and why Labour lost

12 May 2015

4:07 PM

12 May 2015

4:07 PM

Jim Messina is the American elections guru who got the general election right. Hired by the Conservatives as a strategy adviser in 2013, the Tories hoped he would emulate Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election strategy. And so he did. Whereas British pollsters consistently missed that the Tories were moving into pole position, Messina’s internal numbers showed for weeks they were on course to be the largest party. Speaking to The Spectator from Washington, D.C, he reveals that he was not at all surprised when the BBC exit poll showed the Tories were going to trounce Labour.

‘We predicted 312 seats that morning to Lynton [Crosby] and 316 was right in line with that, so it just kind of validated what we’d been seeing,’ he says. ‘I had thought we were 306 with six days left. so that’s all pretty much in line with the exit polls.’ Did he ever have any doubts in his own methods, particularly as his polling was showing a very different conclusion to the British pollsters?

‘No, not at all’ he says. ‘CTF, Lynton’s firm, was doing daily tracking stuff and we were doing a bunch of analytics and modelling every day as well. Both of us had the same data so we were very sure.’ Still, Messina did not leave anything to chance. ‘I think it’s fair to say we did have some moments when I made the team go back and really crunch the numbers to make sure we were right — but having been through the Obama campaign as well, my standard deviation is that public polling is wrong and it seemed to be true in this case as well.’

Advice to the pollsters

Where does Messina think the polling went wrong? He reels off a list of the errors: ‘One, a lot of them are using a 2010 view of the electorate. Two, especially in some of them, they weren’t naming the candidates in the seats and I assume that is a recipe to get it absolutely wrong because some incumbents do really well. Three, we were doing much, much bigger sample sizes than what they were doing. Four, we were doing a mix of online and traditional phone calls … and I think that no one was doing that.’ Traditionally in Britain, pollsters split methods — YouGov stick to online polling while ICM stick to telephone canvasing. But, as Messina puts it, only the Tories had this ‘kind of that mix and there certainly wasn’t anyone doing modelling of the electorate’.

Another factor was Ukip. If Messina is right about the success of basing his polling on a more recent modelling of the electorate, were disaffected Labour and Tory voters included in his planning? ‘Yes and that’s something that CTF really has spent a lot of time of and did a really great job,’ he says. ‘Mark Textor is a brilliant pollster and he spent a bunch of time kind of looking at that.’

Messina hopes that the pollsters will ‘start to figure out why they got it wrong in real time’. But his past experiences in America suggest it may or may not happen. ‘Unfortunately in the US we had the same in 2012 and we did a similar study but nothing has really changed and rather than just trying to cover your own butts,’ he says.

‘I hope you sit down and have a real methodological discussion about how you can get this stuff right. It was so clear, especially for the entire last month, that they were wrong but none of them wanted to hear about it. So the first thing to fixing a problem is admitting you have one and I hope they do a little bit better job than the US have done on that.’

Killing the Lib Dems

Focusing on the Liberal Democrats in the South West was one key strategy that resulted in a Tory majority. Messina points out that one pollster even had the Lib Dems winning twenty seats. ‘You really have to not be paying attention to get that,’ he said. Was the decision to target the Lib Dems a strategy based on his data or from Crosby’s vision for the campaign? ‘Lynton was definitely the inspiration behind that strategy and believed very, very deeply in it and really understood it and our data was just used to help that,’ he says. ‘At his request we built a model of the seats of everyone we felt could switch between us and the Lib Dems and had our field team contact those people directly and that clearly worked — but it was definitely Lynton’s call.’

Data vs. messaging

Ed Miliband and David Axelrod.

Ed Miliband and David Axelrod.

Labour also hired its own ex-Obama campaign adviser, David Axelrod, who offered advice on messaging instead of polling and data. As I wrote in the Washington Post last year, Axelrod was advising the Labour campaign from afar while Messina was more involved at CCHQ. Was it Messina’s data-focused approach that won the day, or was it down to the personality of David Cameron vs. Ed Miliband? ‘All elections are always about the candidates and we had the better leader,’ he says. ‘We had a leader with a clear agenda who had taken very difficult steps and the economy was benefiting from that.’

But Messina does not have many positive things to say about Labour’s messaging either. ‘To this day I can’t tell you what Labour’s message was other than I guess we don’t like the Tories. But until the famous Ed Rock or Ed Stone, you sort of had no idea what they were running on and when you are trying to do that five days before, you’re in deep, deep trouble.’

The research conducted by Crosby backed up his polling on the Tories’ message of economic stability. ‘CTF were saying it and then people on the doors were hearing it is that people believed that Cameron had taken tough steps, things were starting to get better and that Miliband wasn’t offering anything new and that combination made it very, very difficult for them to win.’

Westminster vs. Washington

Having worked on successful campaigns both sides of the pond, Messina has a unique view into the differences of British and American campaigning. ‘The UK doesn’t have television ads and so messaging and you guys, the press, are way more important and that is very different from the US’, he says. The lack of what Messina describes as ‘paid communications’ in British politics— TV attack adverts for example — is key factor in the importance of the printed press. Like Axelrod, he believes that Fleet Street is more powerful than Fox News. ‘Our research showed when there were big stories or big moments, it was the press that drove that discussion and that is very different.’ Messina declines to mention any particular papers he found important. ‘That was a world Lynton really understood and I followed his views on that one.’

On money, Messina says the decision ‘to limit the spending is the right one’ and thinks that spending caps are ‘a better way to run campaigns in your system and I like it very much.’ The difference in campaigning scale is huge: ‘I think we spent a total of £30 million on the election and we spent $1.1 billion on Obama winning.’

Hillary 2016 — and the future

Barack Obama speaks as Organizing for Action head Jim Messina (L) looks on during an Organizing for Action dinner on March 13, 2013 at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC.

Barack Obama speaks as Organizing for Action head Jim Messina (L) looks on during an Organizing for Action dinner on March 13, 2013 at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC.

For now, Messina’s sojourn in Westminster is over. He is back in DC and already advising the Democrats once again — in particular Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. ‘I am helping run her Super PAC and I’m very excited about that and we’re at work every day to make sure she wins this election.’

Could he seem himself returning to Conservative HQ in future? ‘I would love to, I really believe in Prime Minister Cameron and I adore his team, I think Andrew Feldman and Lynton, those guys are all some of the better people I have worked with so it would be an honour to work with them again.’

What about working for say Boris Johnson, if he is leading the Tories in 2020? ‘Well we’re only three days after the last one! I think I’m going to go to sleep for a couple of weeks.’


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