Election 2012

Orca aground: Romney’s high-tech ‘Get Out the Vote’ failure

Orca aground: Romney’s high-tech 'Get Out the Vote' failure

No post-mortem of the 2012 election would be complete without a long, hard look at the stunning failure of Project Orca, the Romney campaign’s high-tech, centrally coordinated get-out-the-vote effort.

Getting out the vote has become a very fine art. The Obama campaign had a phenomenally successful operation, known as Project Narwhal. Huge amounts of data about potential voters—particularly low-motivation “sporadic” voters—was gathered and tracked, allowing Obama campaign operatives to focus their efforts on enticing marginal voters to the polls. Areas of interest to individual voters were monitored, to facilitate targeted campaign advertising. The time available to campaign staff and enthusiastic volunteers is limited. Obama’s team used data processing technology and the Internet as force multipliers, to ensure precious campaign resources were invested wisely.

That’s how Project Orca was supposed to work, too, but it didn’t work. Numerous volunteers have emerged since the election with tragic tales of the system’s failure, from silly mistakes to serious flaws in online architecture. Prominent among them was John Ekdahl, who has a background in web design.

He wrote a landmark expose of Orca at the Ace of Spades blog on Nov. 8, in which he concluded the end result of its failure was that over 30,000 of the most energetic Romney volunteers “were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc. We lost by fairly small margins in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado. If this had worked could it have closed the gap? I sure hope not for my sanity’s sake.”

The problems identified by Ekdahl and others include inadequate testing of the Orca system; a top-down infrastructure run out of Boston, instead of the nimble decentralized effort one might have expected from a campaign that praised the virtues of decentralized government; incorrect password information distributed to campaign volunteers; backup systems that failed as comprehensively as the primary system did; and unclear, or even inaccurate, instructions distributed to volunteers.

Two of the amateur-hour errors highlighted by Ekdahl almost boggles the imagination. Poll-watchers had to bring a vitally important certificate with them to gain access to polling stations during the election, but the Project Orca checklist was written incorrectly. It twice reminded poll watchers to bring a chair to ensure their comfort, instead of reminding them to bring the far more important certificate.

Failing web design 101

As for the crude and buggy website employed by Project Orca in lieu of a streamlined mobile phone app, it was a secure website, which means casual attempts to type its name into a web browser would fail, if they were not automatically captured and re-directed to the secure site. That’s Web Design 101, but the Project Orca team didn’t do it; so, countless volunteers incorrectly assumed the site was down on Election Day when they ran into trouble accessing it.

There have been some disturbing efforts by Romney campaign staff to claim Project Orca essentially performed as intended, but in truth it appears to have been a total disaster.

The system was supposed to help campaign volunteers locate voters who needed motivation to get them to the polls, but instead those valuable campaign resources sat idle, howling in frustration at a system that functioned sporadically at best during crucial hours on Election Day.

Large numbers of volunteers—reportedly including the entire North Carolina team—were locked out of the system because they had incorrect passwords.

In some areas, old-fashioned get-out-the-vote strategies had been abandoned completely in favor of Project Orca; when it failed, hasty attempts to do things “old school” were made, but it was far too late.

Desperate volunteers couldn’t get in touch with anyone at campaign headquarters to receive guidance.

The Obama campaign was everywhere, while in some areas the beleaguered Romney teams couldn’t even cover half of the polling stations. It was so bad that many volunteers went online to ask if the system had been deliberately sabotaged.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that completely discarding the high-tech centralized solution in favor of pens, paper, and shoe leather would have produced a better result.

This failure of information flow was very much a two-way street, because the Romney campaign found itself effectively blinded by the lack of anticipated data from the Orca system.

They literally did not know what was actually happening in crucial battleground states, which accounted for a good deal of their visible shock when Romney lost the election.

Much of the “top secret” system had been shielded from all but the innermost circles of the campaign, ostensibly to protect its integrity, and preserve the element of surprise when Orca was unleashed against the Obama campaign. But, that meant a limited number of people knew what to do when it failed, so the inner circle found itself without eyes and ears.

In addition to the obvious results on Election Day, the failure of Project Orca casts Mitt Romney’s primary claims to the presidency in a dim light: his organizational and management skills. It’s simply astonishing that this vital element of the campaign failed as badly as it did, in an environment where its success was absolutely “mission critical,” as they say in MBA class.

The Obama team handled its get-out-the-vote efforts the right way, arguably better than anyone has ever done it before. The Republicans have a lot of catching up to do. They desperately need something that really is what Project Orca was supposed to be.

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