The Last Thing UM Needs Is Jim Messina’s Data Prowess

by William Skink

The prowess of a powerful alum coming to save the day at UM? Or a case study in failure looking for a little local love while he licks his wounds?

First, the gushing. Jim Messina is back in town, inspiring one local reporter to swoon this opening lede:

Jim Messina, arguably the University of Montana’s most powerful alum, is volunteering his campaign and data prowess as CEO of The Messina Group to help his alma mater.

Gross. At a time when data prowess is not something to be too openly proud of, Messina scuttles back to UM, where he is greeted by this fawning nod to the lending of his services. And for free! What a guy.

Now, from across the pond, how about the loser angle? The Outline’s examination of Messina opens with the overturning of political expectations in the UK with Brexit. A silver lining, the piece argues, is that once highly compensated consultant stars were exposed for the grifters they are. Then this:

One such fraud is Jim Messina, a former Obama aide who has been a constant presence in Democratic politics since the early Bush years. Messina was a favorite of “wonks” until relatively recently. A 2012 Bloomberg profile titled “Obama’s CEO” provides a perfect distillation of Messina’s carefully cultivated image, comparing his storytelling abilities to TED Talks and praising him for learning from the executives at Google, Facebook, and Zynga. The article goes: “Messina is convinced that modern presidential campaigns are more like fast-growing tech companies than anything found in a history book and his own job is like that of the executives who run them.”

The data wizards of tech are no longer ascending. The platforms that lured us into being compliant faucets of lucrative personal information are being exposed for what the more paranoid among us have known they are for quite some time.

During the Obama era, as Messina’s star was on the rise, the data wizards were on the right side of the political spectrum, meaning the liberal side. Carol Davidsen made that point explicitly in a series of tweets you can read at the link. Here’s some context for Davidsen’s role in Obama’s 2012 campaign:

Carol Davidsen, who served as Obama’s director of integration and media analytics during his 2012 campaign (in her LinkedIn profile she says she was responsible for “The Optimizer” & “Narwhal” big data analytics platforms), claims – with evidence, that Facebook found out about a massive data-mining operation they were conducting to “suck out the whole social graph” in order to target potential voters. After Facebook found out, they knowingly allowed them to continue doing it because they were supportive of the campaign.

With the hyped ability to sway elections supposedly established by Obama’s victory, Messina sold his data snake oil to UK conservatives. And here’s what happened next:

Despite telling Politico in 2013 that he would only work for causes he believed in, Messina hopped the pond and signed on to advise U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 reelection campaign. The American media was left a bit confused by this sudden change of allegiance, having swallowed whole the Democratic line that Obama didn’t really mean his center-right policies. The Conservatives ended up gaining seats and winning a working majority after governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats for five years. However, the circumstances of the election made it a pyrrhic victory for Cameron. Many of the seats the Conservatives won were taken from Liberal Democrats, who had supported Cameron’s agenda anyway. To appease the far-right U.K. Independence Party, Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership if he was reelected. The campaign to Vote Leave turned out to be far more popular than expected, forcing Cameron to actively campaign against a referendum he initially proposed. Messina was central to this campaign as well, and he assured the Conservatives that his famous data-heavy modeling foresaw Britain remaining in the EU. The result of the vote, however, was the exact opposite, with 52 percent voting to leave the EU, and Cameron resigned as Prime Minister the next day.

Botching Brexit was just Messina getting warmed up. Other failures followed:

The same process repeated the next year in Italy, when Democratic Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed a national referendum to reform Italy’s parliamentary structure. Renzi hired Messina to oversee the “yes” campaign, which lost by a staggering 20 percent. Renzi also resigned the next day. Messina’s next project was to co-chair Priorities USA Action, the main Hillary Clinton SuperPAC. Five days before last year’s presidential election, Messina published an op-ed in the New York Times confidently downplaying fears of a “Brexit-style shock,” which turned out to be exactly what happened. Clinton’s campaign was “leveraging the power of data to find every last vote they can,” he wrote, unaware that the Clinton campaign’s faith in the power of data would turn out to be one of their greatest weaknesses. Trump, who ran the most amateurish major party campaign in living memory, beat Clinton’s team of world-renowned experts.

Jim Messina is no longer a star on the rise. Instead he’s exposed, like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.

Which begs the question, what the hell does the University of Montana think it’s going to get from this arrangement? A Montexit from flagship status?

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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6 Responses to The Last Thing UM Needs Is Jim Messina’s Data Prowess

  1. JC says:

    My bet is that the UofM will get the same sort of data-driven Facebook campaign micro-targeting individuals for recruitment based on the profile information gathered there, and combined with all the other mega-piles of data that are gathered elsewhere and collated and sold to whomever wants to use it. Maybe he’s going to bring a Cambridge Analytica-style big brother program to the UofM to monitor student and staff. This to assure that individual behavior models the desired attributes necessary to rehab the University’s image in the wake of the disaster that occurred when it was left up to the football team and athletic department to headline campus PR.

    So actually, my question then becomes: what is it that Messina expects to gain from playing the pretend benefactor here? Therein lies the really spooky matter. Does he want to become UofM president someday? Gear up for a run for public office? Refine his data-mining tactics to sell to the next highest bidder for his methods? Rehab his creds while he licks his wounds from his euro defeats (were they really “defeats” or is he a Manchurian candidate-style trojan horse?)? Pick a team of university recruits to begin a center-right think tank to build his world view? Messina is anything but a benign philanthropist here. My bet is he’s waiting for the next (center-right) promising presidential candidate to ride coattails to the White House and power again.

    • JC says:


      “Messina said he hopes to add value to traditional admissions recruitment with targeted social marketing.”

      Hell, if the Russkies can elect Trump via Facebook, Messina might be able to get the U filled up with “deplorables” given the right mix of algos.

  2. His presence could also be a kind of ‘holding pattern,’ allowing him to retool his data-gathering to Montana in a lead-up to the 2020 races here, specifically governor and/or Bullock’s likely run against Daines.

  3. Djinn&Tonic says:

    This is gonna bake your noodle: All Russiagate Roads Lead To London: Evidence Emerges Of Joseph Mifsud’s Links To UK Intelligence

  4. Big Swede says:

    UM has gone the way of print media. In 2008 the Denver Post had 600 journalists, in 2018 they had 60.

    Liberalism kills every thing it touches.

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