Commentary Magazine


Topic: Project ORCA

Learning from Obama’s Campaign Victory

Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

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Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

Since the election, while the attention of almost every other conservative strategist and activist was focused on the failure in the Romney campaign, Ruffini has spent a significant amount of time and effort deconstructing the incredibly successful Obama campaign. Ruffini, the founder and owner of the consulting firm EngageDC, sneaked into Obama For America (OFA) strategy sessions, live-tweeting and later collating his findings. He has also pored over information released by OFA about their organizational structure to learn how OFA operated so that a future GOP candidate wouldn’t find themselves so outgunned in future campaigns. In one large report, Going Inside the Cave, Ruffini’s team analyzed the organization, strategy and implementation of OFA’s digital efforts, explaining: 

OFA was, far and away, the most sophisticated political organization on the planet. And Republicans needed to learn from them. So we set about gathering insights, data, and anecdotes from hundreds of news articles, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, and presentations. 

The Cave is what OFA called the windowless room that housed their analytics team. Like digital in 2008, analytics came of age in the 2012 campaign. OFA’s analytics team had 50 staffers. By comparison, the Romney-Ryan campaign had a data team of 4 people.

Veterans of OFA have been surprisingly forthcoming in providing details on how they leveraged the latest in technology and digital strategy to make their campaign as effective and efficient as possible.

In 2016, Republicans can’t afford to fight the battles of 2012. We have to look forward to the future and start preparing now.

Last night Ruffini live-tweeted his analysis of the “OFA Legacy Report,” which he then compiled along with other digital strategists’s anecdotes. Why is Ruffini and his firm spending so much time deconstructing the reelection campaign of a second-term president? While this may be Obama’s last term in office, OFA isn’t going anywhere. Mother Jones reports:

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign was the most technologically advanced political operation in American history. The campaign, led by Jim Messina, amassed and distilled vast quantities of voter data, built apps and networks to mobilize voters and enlist volunteers, and practically perfected the science of email fundraising. Post-election, Messina and his lieutenants weren’t about to let their data files, email lists, algorithms, and grassroots machine simply gather dust. Instead, they will soon launch Organizing for Action, a standalone advocacy group created to bolster Obama as he pursues his second-term agenda.

The new group will be used to mobilize Obama supporters around the key issues of Obama’s second term in office.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained that the group “dwarfs any part of the Democratic coalition.” The LA Times was the first to report on the new group’s hypocritical tax status, given the Obama campaign’s demonization of “dark money” groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, a 501(c)4: 

The organization will be set up as a 501(c)4 social welfare group, according to top Democrats privy to the discussions. That structure allows it to accept unlimited contributions.

The Obama campaign’s data files — its most valuable assets — may be housed in a separate legal entity that would make them accessible to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to a source familiar with the plans.

If Republicans want to make this inauguration day the last of a Democratic president for quite some time, serious time and money needs to be invested in analyzing Obama’s efforts in order not to replicate them, but to best them. Ruffini’s work is a great first step, but instead of GOP consultants and strategists spending time meeting to pat each other on the back, it’s time finally admit how sweeping defeat was in 2012 in order to catch up enough to give the 2016 GOP nominee a chance at victory.  

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Is the GOP Digital Team (Still) in Denial?

In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Benjamin Domenech has an excellent article on the Republicans’ broken technological machine. In it he explains why the Romney digital team was unable to catch up to Obama’s record-setting digital team that many have likened to “Big Brother” in its scope.

Domenech contends, and I agree, that even taking the strength of Obama’s digital team into account, the Romney campaign didn’t scratch the surface of what they should have accomplished on the digital front. The issues of the Romney campaign were varied and are not only due to the failure of Project Orca. Domenech explains:

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In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Benjamin Domenech has an excellent article on the Republicans’ broken technological machine. In it he explains why the Romney digital team was unable to catch up to Obama’s record-setting digital team that many have likened to “Big Brother” in its scope.

Domenech contends, and I agree, that even taking the strength of Obama’s digital team into account, the Romney campaign didn’t scratch the surface of what they should have accomplished on the digital front. The issues of the Romney campaign were varied and are not only due to the failure of Project Orca. Domenech explains:

While digital efforts were the primary focus of the Obama campaign from the beginning, with data miners and tech gurus culled from Silicon Valley, they were a relatively late addition to the Romney effort. Its digital operation was staffed after the rest of the campaign, with an operation that seemed remarkably inefficient for a campaign that was supposed to do things with the rigor of Romney’s research-intensive firm, Bain Capital. There were plenty of people working on the digital side, but tasks were poorly assigned and hampered by restrictive approval processes. Romney’s staff was politically diverse and more used to the world of business than politics—some had never worked on a political campaign before. Frustration set in, then boredom, then Facebook-browsing. The quiet was deafening.

For digital staffers who recognized they were playing catch-up with the Obama machine that had never stopped building after 2008, the contrasts were infuriating. Where the Obama campaign’s content and emails were tailored to the interests of individually targeted demographic communities based on topics of interest and other data-mined priorities, Romney’s campaign didn’t even make distinctions between whether someone had given $5 or $500, or whether the name came to the database through a petition about health care or energy policy.

The campaign was also fiercely hierarchical, to the surprise of some longtime Romney staffers who found their ideas for innovation shunted aside by senior staff and consultants who were unapproachable and unresponsive.

Late last month RedState’s Erick Erickson had a stinging post on the incestuous and unproductive relationship between consultants and the Romney campaign, contending that a group of consultants were “the seeds of Mitt Romney’s ruin and the RNC’s get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed — bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots.” Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, it appears that his advice on the usefulness of these consultants has more or less fallen on deaf ears. 

Yesterday a “private” meeting (which was immediately reported on by sources present) took place between some members of Romney’s digital team and other major conservative digital strategists. It appears that many found it to be a positive and uplifting experience, and that discussing the enormous gap between the two sides didn’t overwhelm or discourage those present. Roll Call reported that “One source said the meeting was so positive that it was almost as if Romney had won.”

That attitude calls to mind the overconfidence that marked most of the Romney campaign, especially after the first debate. In Domenech’s piece he quotes Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who announced boldly in a staff meeting, “We’re f—ing gonna win this thing.” The digital divide between the two sides is not insurmountable, but it should not be filling anyone in the conservative movement with anything resembling confidence either. The fact that this meeting left many leaving feeling positive is a worrisome indication that the consultants and strategists who underestimated their ability to compete with the Obama campaign are still living in an alternate reality. 

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Will GOP Learn Its GOTV Lesson?

Last week, I discussed the disaster that was the Romney campaign’s Project ORCA. On Election Day over 37,000 volunteers spent the day struggling with a flawed and crashing GOTV (get out the vote) computer program, instead of actually getting out the vote. Those volunteers were supposed to be reporting on voter turnout in swing states, and in many instances spent the day troubleshooting with overwhelmed Romney campaign staffers in Boston over a computer program that had never been stress tested. 

Since the election, some details have emerged from frustrated staffers involved with the campaign alleging that the difficulties the Romney campaign encountered with ORCA, as well as other digital problems, were the responsibility of consultants hired by the campaign who were more interested in their own bottom line than winning. Indeed, Romney’s digital director Zac Moffat told the Daily Caller that “he would not elaborate on the record about who made Project ORCA, but said it was not developed by Targeted Victory [Moffat's co-founded firm] or the campaign itself.”

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Last week, I discussed the disaster that was the Romney campaign’s Project ORCA. On Election Day over 37,000 volunteers spent the day struggling with a flawed and crashing GOTV (get out the vote) computer program, instead of actually getting out the vote. Those volunteers were supposed to be reporting on voter turnout in swing states, and in many instances spent the day troubleshooting with overwhelmed Romney campaign staffers in Boston over a computer program that had never been stress tested. 

Since the election, some details have emerged from frustrated staffers involved with the campaign alleging that the difficulties the Romney campaign encountered with ORCA, as well as other digital problems, were the responsibility of consultants hired by the campaign who were more interested in their own bottom line than winning. Indeed, Romney’s digital director Zac Moffat told the Daily Caller that “he would not elaborate on the record about who made Project ORCA, but said it was not developed by Targeted Victory [Moffat's co-founded firm] or the campaign itself.”

We’ve heard very little about what went wrong on the record from top-level campaign staff. Today Romney’s political director Rich Beeson gave a very perplexing interview to National Review’s Katrina Trinko. He told Trinko, 

“We hit the numbers we needed to hit. Our ground game turned out the people it needed to turnout. They just turned out more. They turned out 18 to 29 [year olds] at a higher level. They turned out African-Americans at a higher level. They turned out Hispanics at a higher level.”

“We hit the numbers we needed to hit”? Really? The numbers the Romney campaign needed to hit were, as NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted, the numbers needed to win. Republicans saw 1.4 million fewer votes in 2012 verses 2008. Granted, turnout for Obama was off by a far greater amount–7.7 million voters– yet if Romney had brought out the same number of voters as McCain did in 2008 we would be talking about a Romney victory, not a Romney defeat. Romney even drew fewer Mormon voters than George W. Bush did in 2004 (numbers for the 2008 race are unavailable). Romney staffers could point to several positive stories from their campaign, but turnout isn’t one of them. 

Beeson went on to defend not only ORCA in principle, but also in practice on Election Day:

Beeson contends that while Orca had its flaws on Election Day, it was a smart idea. “Did the overall system work the way that we wanted it to? No. But it is a good precursor for what I think we’ll want to be able to design and implement and improve on in coming elections? Absolutely,” he says.

With an election as close as Tuesday’s (NRO’s Jim Geraghty put the margin of victory at 407,000 votes between Romney and Obama in key swing states) what would have been a better use of resources? Should volunteers have been tracking voter turnout in order to get results to Boston a few hours before the networks would have, or should they have instead focused on traditional GOTV efforts like door knocks, transportation to polling locations, and calling undecided voters? 

Worryingly, it appears the Romney campaign and the consultants it hired refuse to admit that ORCA was a bad strategy in theory and in practice, and that they also hope to replicate it for future campaigns. Given the huge financial investment the campaign gave to the consultants responsible for the program, it’s understandable that its utter failure is an inconvenient detail for those who would like to try to sell the program all over again. For the GOP’s sake in 2014 and 2016 and beyond, one would hope that the track record not only of ORCA, but also of the consultants and firms responsible, don’t disappear down the memory hole. For that to happen, the creators of ORCA need to be exposed by the Romney campaign’s staff as a last service to future GOP candidates. 

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Romney’s Get Out the Vote Fiasco

The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

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The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

The story of how monumental a failure Project ORCA was on Election Day was first reported by a volunteer, John Ekdahl, on the Ace of Spades blog. After tweeting the article, I was contacted by several other volunteers who were eager to explain in greater detail just how many things went wrong with Project Orca on Tuesday.

I spoke with one volunteer in a rural Virginia county who had a similar experience to the blogger on Ace’s site. Shoshanna McCrimmon signed up to volunteer on Romney’s website several months ago. She was contacted by Dan Centinello of the Romney campaign and underwent online and phone training that lasted for several hours in order to volunteer locally on Election Day. Because of secrecy concerns, the application itself was inaccessible until the morning of the election. From the outset there were failures of organization.

Shoshanna wasn’t given the credentials necessary to gain access to the polling place and was told to arrive when the polls opened at 7. A few days before the election, she was emailed a PDF packet, which she was meant to print out, containing the names of all of the registered voters at her polling place and instructions. Her location’s packet was only dozen or so pages; Ekdahl’s packet was over sixty. The packet was supposed to contain credentials, but they did not. Shoshana’s email to the Romney campaign the night before the election about the lack of credentials went unanswered. When Shoshanna arrived on time at 7 a.m., she learned that polls had actually opened an hour prior.

Unable to test her pin number and password until that morning, she discovered, only after after she arrived at the polling location ready to work, that her pin was invalid. She spent until 2:30 that afternoon on calls to Boston every 45 minutes trying to get a new one. She attempted to input the voter information via phone dial-pad–the first backup plan–but her invalid pin number was useless. Plan C, calling in to Boston and verbally transmitting the information, was also a wash. The same phone number for dial pad and voice reporting was given–there was no option to ask to speak to Boston directly after calling in.

After finally getting her pin number in the late afternoon, Shoshanna attempted to log into the site. She had been sent an email from the Romney campaign that morning (after polls opened) telling her that cell phones were often not allowed in polling places, after she was previously warned not to forget to bring her cell phone in other emails. Thankfully, her polling place allowed her to use her cell phone. The website, on a secure server, was inaccessible from her cell phone (Ekdahl explains why in detail). By this point hundreds of voters had passed through Shoshanna’s polling station, unreported. Nevertheless, she went home, retrieved her laptop, and thanks to the pastor at the polling place (a church) she gained access to a locked wireless network. It was only at that point that Shoshanna was able to access ORCA, with only a few hours left before polls closed.

Shoshanna’s experience was far from unique. Starting in the early afternoon, reports were coming in from across swing states that ORCA had crashed. That morning, when Shoshanna was on the phone with Boston, she was told the system was crashing, unable to withstand thousands of simultaneous log-ins. The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan. Just another arrogant piece of the arrogant Romney campaign.”

The operative in question, Dan Centinello, Romney’s Deputy Political Director, was Shoshanna’s only point of contact with the campaign. After a two-and-a-half-hour conference call with volunteers across the country, Shoshanna still had questions about minor details about ORCA and volunteering at her polling place. Her emails were answered within 24 hours, always by Centinello. There appears to have been no delegation on Centinello’s part, and every question sent was answered by the ORCA project manager personally. It’s likely that if this was taking place with the thousands of volunteers in Project ORCA, Centinello was spending hundreds of hours answering basic questions from volunteers that could have been addressed by lower level staffers. This time would have been better spent, I would argue, testing the capabilities of ORCA and its servers and testing the application on small groups of trusted volunteers, especially elderly ones who might have difficulty with its interface (which, on election day, they did). 

One of the most basic tenets of conservatism is a loathing and mistrust of big government and bureaucracy. Project ORCA was the embodiment of big government, top-down management. Information was sent by volunteers in swing states across the country to Boston, and those in Boston were then tasked with assigning other volunteers in those same swing states to contact those who had not yet been to the polls. Boston was, at best, a detour and an unnecessary middleman in the GOTV efforts, and when that link in the chain broke, Romney’s GOTV effort crumbled on the most crucial day of his campaign. One of the most successful components of Karl Rove’s GOTV efforts with George W. Bush’s campaigns was his small-government ideological approach. Each volunteer was tasked with personally getting a handful of voters from their area to the polls, voters that they were already familiar with from their church, their children’s schools and their community. Instead of this strategy, Boston was the hub; information was sent there and GOTV assignments were delegated from thousands of miles away by Romney staffers largely unfamiliar with individuals and communities. At Ace of Spades, Ekdahl described the organizational approach of Project ORCA: “The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters).”

Was ORCA’s failure the reason why Romney lost Virginia by almost 116,000 votes, Ohio by 103,000, Iowa by 88,000 or why Florida is still, days later, too close to call? It’s impossible to know what a Romney campaign with working GOTV technology would have been able to accomplish. Ekdahl explained that with the failure of Project ORCA’s organization and its later meltdown on Election Day “30,000+ of the most active and fired-up 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.” The possibility that all of the efforts of Romney’s campaign, all of the enthusiasm, went unharnessed and dormant on Election Day when they could’ve at least led to a closer election result, if not a victory, is becoming beyond frustrating for thousands of his staffers, for the millions of Americans who gave their time and money to elect Mitt Romney president as they come to learn just what a disaster ORCA seems to have been.

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