Jim Messina has been called “the most powerful person in Washington that you haven’t heard of.” He was the National Chief of Staff for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and he was the mastermind behind President Obama’s re-election in 2012, when Messina was campaign manager. He also served in the White House as Director of Personnel for the Obama-Biden Transition Team in 2008 and as Deputy Chief of Staff.
Messina is currently the president and CEO of the Messina Group. In that capacity, he advises companies like Uber and Airbnb and provides strategic consulting for foreign political leaders, from David Cameron to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. Messina is also co-chair of the Priorities USA Action super PAC to elect Hillary Clinton.
Messina visited Duke on October 25 — just two weeks before Election Day — to deliver the Ambassador Dave & Kay Phillips Family International Lecture along with Karl Rove. He sat down with DPR’s Zach Fuchs.
DPR: When you work with foreign leaders, I assume you talk about the election in this country. What do they ask you and what do you say to them?
JM: I think what is true wherever I go around the world is that this election is confusing to world leaders and they don’t understand the rise of Donald Trump. And that’s true of left, right, et cetera. The truth is no one in Washington understood it either, so it’s not surprising that world folks don’t understand. I remind people that America has survived tougher times than this and that this too shall pass. And I’ve never believed that he will become president, so it’s not a problem.
DPR: You have said that even you could not get Donald Trump elected, but what was the tipping point when he went from being a bad candidate to being an unelectable candidate in your opinion?
JM: That’s a better question for history to judge. I think his unbelievable inability to stay on message made it very hard to win a campaign. But I think clearly his attacks on women made the battleground to get to 270 electoral votes impossible.
DPR: This campaign season has been going on for almost 19 or 20 months?
JM: [Laughing] Yup.
DPR: And Secretary Clinton has talked about shortening it. Do you think that’s important?
JM: I do. Look, I think American voters tire of this long campaign. In the UK, we had a 45-day campaign. I think it’s a better system. I don’t think we’re well-served by such a long campaign, but it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
DPR: What would your ideal campaign look like?
JM: I think we have too much money in politics. My ideal campaign would get rid of Citizens United. We’d go back to some system where we would have campaign limits and we’d be much more grassroots than the current campaign system we have now.
DPR: From when you worked on David Cameron’s Brexit campaign, do you see any parallels between the Brexit vote and the rise of Trumpism? Does Trump reflect only American values or is he part of an international phenomenon?
JM: If you look at the voters who support Donald Trump and some of the Brexit voters, you see a lot of similarities in non-college educated white men who are angry at a system that they believe is failing them. You’ve seen Donald Trump campaign for Brexit, you’ve seen Brexit leaders come campaign for Trump. It’s not a surprise that those two movements share some common ideology.
DPR: There have also been a lot of people trying to re-register out-of-state voters on-campus at Duke. Do you think it’s a problem that many transient college kids are able to shape an election, especially in a battleground state?
JM: No, I think one of the important things is for young people to get involved in politics. I think we’ve got to do every single thing we can do to get people involved in politics. The fact is that to really be a part of a university, you’re part of the community and you’re a part of the politics and you have as much at stake in who gets elected to the legislature, to the senate, to the presidency as everyone else. And I think that people who don’t want students involved in politics are partisan and I think that we all can agree that the future leaders are here at Duke. And we want them involved in politics. We want them to care about who wins these elections. We want them to help shape their futures. In January, when the legislature convenes, they’re going to make a bunch of decisions that directly affect your life. To not have a say in that seems to me to be silly.
DPR: Related to that, how do you take people on this campus who are interested in being doctors or consultants or becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg and make them want to be the next president or governor instead?
JM: I think it is important to get people involved in all facets of issues. Too often we get focused on partisan politics, but there’s many other types of politics that are equally important: social movements, movements to get involved in economic, fiscal, social policies — all those things. I have a pretty liberal definition of what it means to be in politics. And I think what you see is if people get involved, if they fight for things, if they see some success, they understand what they’re doing to change the world. The other thing is that Americans are especially optimistic people and they want to change the world, they want to make things better. And I think it’s very clear that politics is one of the ways you can make things in your life better. And our future will be shaped by our ability to answer your question. Can we get the yous of the world to run for public office? Can we get you to want to stay in office and want to work for government? So far the results are very good. We still have the best and the brightest. When I was in the White House, we met the career people at all the agencies and they are getting uniformly amazing leaders who trying to do the right thing because they believe in this. But you can’t just assume that. You’ve got to continue to get people involved.
DPR: Finally, what is your prediction for the presidential, gubernatorial, and senate races in North Carolina?
JM: Democrats win all of them.