Can Jim Messina, the mastermind behind Barack Obama's re-election, do the same for David Cameron?

The former deputy chief of staff at the White House was once described as the 'most powerful person in Washington you’ve never heard of'

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Indy Politics

An American elections expert who masterminded Barack Obama’s successful campaign to retain office has been hired by the Conservative Party to help David Cameron achieve the same feat, the party has announced.

The Tories will be advised over the next two years by Jim Messina, a former deputy chief of staff at the White House and Mr Obama’s campaign manager last year.

He was a key figure behind the Democrats’ development of sophisticated campaigning techniques to reach crucial groups of electors and the targeted use of social media to get key messages across to voters.

Mr Messina is a revered figure in US political circles and was once described by the White House communications director as the “most powerful person in Washington you’ve never heard of”.

His recruitment, which is being viewed as a major coup by the party, will come as a surprise given the historic links between the Conservatives and the Republicans.

But Mr Obama’s ability to assemble a winning coalition of voters in two elections appealed to senior Tories who know they face an uphill struggle to achieve an overall Commons majority after the next election in May 2015.

The President also managed to be re-elected against a backdrop of economic gloom.

Mr Messina was recruited by Lynton Crosby, the party’s chief election strategist, and by Grant Shapps and Lord Feldman, the joint Tory chairmen.

He is being paid from Tory funds and has already started giving tips on campaign tactics.

Party sources, who stressed he would not be advising on policy issues, said he would remain in the United States and report to the Conservatives “senior management team”. They also said the recruitment reflected the strong personal relationship between Mr Cameron and the President.

The move is the latest sign that the Tories – in common with Labour and the Liberal Democrats – are beginning to move towards an election footing for the contest in 21 months’ time.  Ministers are expected to begin spelling out their key campaign messages – including tougher action on spending cuts, welfare reform and immigration – at their annual conference in October.

Senior Tories were impressed by the slick Obama campaign in 2012 which used social media such as Twitter and Facebook to telling effect against Mitt Romney’s Republicans.

Such techniques are likely to be far more influential when Britain votes than they were at the last election in 2010.

The move is a blow to Labour which is currently without a campaigns co-ordinator following last month’s resignation from the post of Tom Watson.

Among those tipped to succeed him are Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, and Michael Dugher, a party deputy chairman.

However, Ed Miliband, the party leader, is being advised by Arnie Graf, a veteran American grassroots campaigner who in 1984 trained Mr Obama as a community organiser in Chicago.

Mr Cameron has devoted much energy to building a rapport with the President, visiting him last year in what was widely interpreted as an endorsement of his candidacy.

The Prime Minister travelled to Washington in May during one of his turbulent spells in office. At a White House press conference, Mr Obama gave strong backing to Mr Cameron’s handling of his problems with backbenchers over his approach to the European Union.

Jim Messina: An unrivalled master of social media

Jim Messina was called to lead Barack Obama’s re-election campaign after the Democrats’ evisceration in the 2010 midterms. At the time, he was the President’s deputy chief of staff, or “Obama’s fixer”, as he became known. In Washington circles he was also “Mini-Rahm” after Rahm Emanuel, his former boss and undoubtedly the most ruthless and foul-mouthed member of the President’s inner circle.

Mr Messina managed the successful 1993 re-election campaign of Dan Kemmis, the then mayor of Missoula, Montana, while still an undergraduate. In 1995, he went to work for Max Baucus, the most powerful Democrat in Montana. His skills attracted attention from a certain aspiring presidential candidate, and in summer 2008, with Hillary Clinton finally dispatched, Mr Messina signed up with Mr Obama.

He might have been one of Mr Obama’s most trusted lieutenants in Washington, but that December 2010 summons to campaign HQ in Chicago made perfect sense. Mr Messina threw himself into the job, reading more than 100 accounts of presidential campaigns. But the real crash course was the future and its technologies and he learnt from one of the best – Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. In early 2011, as the Chicago HQ was being readied for business, Mr Messina went on an extraordinary mission to learn the arts of modern management.

The Tories will have been attracted by his meticulous planning and mastery of social media. During that month-long corporate crash course, Mr Schmidt helped to arrange sessions with top people from Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and DreamWorks. Mr Messina learnt from the best, and he connected the President to the voters. In 2008, Mr Obama had 116,000 Twitter followers. By the time election day 2012 arrived, he had 16 million. Mr Obama’s campaign was also characterised by relentless personal attacks on Mitt Romney – and the man who masterminded it all was Jim Messina. Ed Miliband had better watch out.