As Republicans try to explain their Election Day losses in terms of policy, tactics, and strategy, one factor is emerging as the essential difference between the Obama and Romney campaigns on November 6: the absolute failure of Romney’s get-out-the-vote effort, which underperformed even John McCain’s lackluster 2008 turnout. One culprit appears to be “Orca,” the Romney’s massive technology effort, which failed completely.
A source within the Romney campaign agreed to share his reflections on Project Orca with Breitbart News:
It’s easy to point fingers after a loss and I wouldn’t normally do it, but consider what happened.
Project Orca was supposed to enable poll watchers to record voter names on their smartphones, by listening for names as voters checked in. This would give the campaign real-time turnout data, so they could redirect GOTV resources throughout the day where it was most needed. They recruited 37,000 swing state volunteers for this.
I worked on the Colorado team, and we were called by hundreds (or more) volunteers who couldn’t use the app or the backup phone system. The usernames and passwords were wrong, but the reset password tool didn’t work, and we couldn’t change phone PINs. We were told the problems were limited and asked to project confidence, have people use pencil and paper, and try to submit again later.
Then at 6PM they admitted they had issued the wrong PINs to every volunteer in Colorado, and reissued new PINs (which also didn’t work). Meanwhile, counties where we had hundreds of volunteers, such as Denver Colorado, showed zero volunteers in the system all day, but we weren’t allowed to add them. In one area, the head of the Republican Party plus 10 volunteers were all locked out. The system went down for a half hour during peak voting, but for hundreds or more, it never worked all day. Many of the poll watchers I spoke with were very discouraged. Many members of our phone bank got up and left.
I do not know if the system was totally broken, or if I just saw the worst of it. But I wonder, because they told us all day that most volunteers were submitting just fine, yet admitted at the end that all of Colorado had the wrong PIN’s. They also said the system projected every swing state as pink or red.
Regardless of the specific difficulties, this idea would only help if executed extremely well. Otherwise, those 37,000 swing state volunteers should have been working on GOTV…
Somebody messaged me privately after my email and told me that North Carolina had the same problems — every pin was wrong and not fixed until 6PM — and was also told it was localized to North Carolina.
The problems with Orca appear to have been nationwide, and predated Election Day itself. At Ace of Spades, John Ekdahl reported his frustrations as a volunteer in the field:
From the very start there were warning signs. After signing up, you were invited to take part in nightly conference calls. The calls were more of the slick marketing speech type than helpful training sessions. There was a lot of “rah-rahs” and lofty talk about how this would change the ballgame.
Working primarily as a web developer, I had some serious questions. Things like “Has this been stress tested?”, “Is there redundancy in place?” and “What steps have been taken to combat a coordinated DDOS attack or the like?”, among others. These types of questions were brushed aside (truth be told, they never took one of my questions). They assured us that the system had been relentlessly tested and would be a tremendous success.
Ekdahl describes how volunteers were expected to print their own materials, and were mistakenly not told to bring their poll watching credentials to polling places. Attempts to communicate with the Romney campaign to ask for assistance were unsuccessful:
By 2PM, I had completely given up. I finally got ahold of someone at around 1PM and I never heard back. From what I understand, the entire system crashed at around 4PM. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I decided to wait for my wife to get home from work to vote, which meant going very late (around 6:15PM). Here’s the kicker, I never got a call to go out and vote. So, who the hell knows if that end of it was working either.
Likewise, Twitchy recorded widespread real-time complaints and criticisms on Twitter by Project Orca volunteers. At one point during Election Day, the system had malfunctioned so badly that desperate volunteers wondered if the program had been hacked.
Romney volunteers in Virginia confirmed that the campaign had relied entirely on Project Orca to turn out the vote in key areas such as Roanoke, where Romney and Ryan had made appearances. Volunteers who had driven to Virginia from safely-Republican Tennessee were shocked at the disorganization they encountered.
While the Romney campaign waited for Orca to function as planned, the Obama campaign had placed signs outside every one of the city’s thirty-three polling places, and was fully staffed with two volunteers outside each polling place, and a strike list volunteer inside, all day long from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The best that the short-handed Tennessee volunteers could manage was 40% coverage of polling places; the local GOP, they said, had relied entirely on the campaign’s centralized Orca system in Boston to turn out the local vote.
Ekdahl concludes his account by hoping that the failures of Orca did not cost Romney the election:
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.
In fact, Orca diverted scarce resources that would have been better used physically moving voters to polling places. By a rough calculation, Romney lost the election by falling 500,000 to 700,000 votes short in key swing states. If each of the 37,000 volunteers that had been devoted to Orca had instead brought 20 voters to the polls in those states over the course of the day, Romney would have won the election.
Before the election, there was much fear-mongering on the Democratic side about the Republicans’ supposed plans to suppress turnout among Obama voters. After the election, GOP strategist Karl Rove accused the Obama campaign of “suppressing the vote” by running a negative campaign against Romney that kept voters at home.
The truth is much worse. There was, in fact, massive suppression of the Republican vote–by the Romney campaign, through the diversion of nearly 40,000 volunteers to a failing computer program.
There was no Plan B; there was only confusion, and silence.