Messina Beats Axelrod in U.K. Election Faceoff of Obama Alumni

Jim Messina
Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

The day before Britain went to the polls, aides to Prime Minister David Cameron privately forecast he would win about 295 seats, well short of a majority. There was one dissenter: Jim Messina. He had the Conservatives at 305.

Even that daring prediction underestimated the extent of the victory. Cameron’s Conservatives took 330 seats, a gain of 28 that gave him a majority in the House of Commons.

Messina, campaign manager for Barack Obama’s re-election battle, had been hired to crunch numbers for the Tories. He worked secretively, running his own data-collection operation to identify and target voters who were receptive to the Conservative message.

Labour leader Ed Miliband had his Obama alumnus, David Axelrod, who had been chief adviser in the 2008 campaign. He focused on big themes and messages. Miliband’s bid was marked by gestures such as carving his election pledges into an eight-foot stone tablet, something that was widely mocked.

“You don’t have to go far talking to Labour advisers to find people who think Axelrod’s advice wasn’t that useful,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and one of the authors of the forthcoming “The British General Election of 2015” book. “It didn’t translate across the Atlantic.”

Data analysis did. When Messina offered his forecast, his British colleagues were split between wondering whether he knew something they didn’t or he simply didn’t understand British politics. It turned out to be the former.

Messina’s Message

Messina was gracious in victory, telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday that Axelrod was “my brother.” He said Cameron won because “elections are always about the future, especially an economic future. We won that choice by over 20 points.”

Axelrod tweeted congratulations to “my friend” Messina, before questioning polls that consistently put the two parties neck-and-neck. “I’ve never seen as stark a failure of polling as in U.K.,” he wrote. “Huge project ahead to unravel that.”

The Conservatives polled 37 percent nationally, while Labour was at 31 percent. That was a wider gap than any pollster predicted.

Damian Lyons-Lowe, chief executive officer of Survation, wrote on the company’s website that it had conducted an eve-of-voting poll that produced exactly those results, but they were so far out of line from everyone else that he “chickened out” of publishing -- a decision, he wrote that “I’m sure I’ll always regret.”

Finding the Source

Andrew Cooper of the pollster Populus said his company tried early this year to identify the source of Conservative optimism. His analysts looked for voters who logically should be voting Conservative, but said they weren’t.

They found two groups: People who thought that Cameron was a better leader than Miliband and also put him ahead on the economy, but said they wouldn’t vote Tory, made up 2 percent of the electorate. People who needed to be told that a Conservative government would benefit them made up 1 percent.

This 3 percent would account for much of the gap between the polling and the result.

“The challenge to the pollsters is that we didn’t find a way of asking the question that identified what those people were going to do,” Cooper said in an interview.

Plan of Attack

If part of the Tory success was down to the targeting of these slivers of the electorate, Cameron’s Australian campaign chief, Lynton Crosby, framed the plan of attack.

The Tory success came in three areas: They took large numbers of seats from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, they held almost all of their own seats against Labour and Labour lost all but one of its 41 seats in Scotland.

Support for Liberal Democrats collapsed in 2010 soon after they went into coalition with the Conservatives. The public view was then nailed down when the party went back on its own pledge to oppose an increase in university fees.

Meanwhile Labour in 2010 avoided the big questions about why they lost. “We did relatively well in seats, which masked the scale of the defeat,” said Matthew Doyle, a former adviser to Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. “We chose not to address questions about whether we’d made mistakes on the economy or wanted to defend our record.”

Finally, the Scottish National Party’s victory in 2011 elections in Scotland put the question of independence on the map. Cameron decided to address it head-on by calling for a referendum. While the SNP lost that vote, the campaign galvanized its supporters.

“You can go back through all these factors and they’re all down to things that happened in the first few months after May 2010,” said Sean Kemp, an adviser to former Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. “We went into coalition, Labour deserted the field on the economy, and we decided on a Scottish referendum. The idea you can turn it round in the last month is nonsense. You have to have a message from day one.”

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