When Mitt Romney lost the presidency to Barack Obama, Republicans, pundits and the blogosphere went wild, lashing out in all directions until they struck ORCA — a high-tech get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort that crashed on Election Day.
For the past two weeks, ORCA and everyone involved have been pummeled mercilessly, but we’re here to tell you that ORCA — though poorly executed and wasteful — is innocent. And that’s not because someone isn’t guilty. The fact is, ORCA has been publicly executed because someone — actually, a lot of someones — are very, very guilty.
So let’s begin this sordid tale at the beginning.
ORCA was a website with two major components: Tell Romney HQ how many voters are turning out at the precinct level to model overall turnout (thereby collecting data for after the fact); and allow Romney HQ to figure out who has voted at the precincts where ORCA volunteers are stationed, so the GOP doesn’t waste resources calling people who had already voted (a decades-old tactic previously accomplished with pens and paper instead of smartphones and website).
Oh, and why a website and not an app? Basically, because the Romney team didn’t want to go through the Apple app store for approval.
So why has anyone heard of ORCA in the first place?
Because by now, we’ve all heard that the Republicans have a big technology problem. And even more frightening than that, the Democrats don’t. They, in fact, have a very impressive operation called Narwhal.
Now, since we had heard that the Republicans have a massive data gap, we can be damn sure that the folks who donated millions of dollars to a Republican victory in 2012 had heard about the same thing, and maybe heard more. So when a guy comes up with a nifty voter-turnout modeling device to help introduce technology to age-old GOTV campaigns, it takes a lot of temptation not to show said technology off.
But ORCA, though nifty, is not Narwhal, nor was it ever. Narwhal is a targeting and data project that began years ago and has been running throughout the entire campaign, centralizing finance, communications and the rest to help the Obama campaign target voters that the data models say are worth targeting. So, though also a whale like ORCA, Norwhal is a completely different beast. To put it lightly, the GOP is “gonna need a bigger boat.”
But did ORCA work?
Short answer, kind of.
ORCA largely accomplished a goal of getting a general idea — a sampling — of turnout in counties across the country.
“I can tell you that data from 91 percent of counties in the targeted states came in, and that we had 14.5 million people who were marked as having voted,” Mr. Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffatt, told Ars Technica.
But ORCA infamously crashed in the afternoon, and a lot of things went wrong. Here are two major reasons why this didn’t matter one bit:
1) A major point of ORCA was to allow the campaign to launch precision strikes instead of having to carpet bomb, thereby being smarter and saving money. But on Nov. 6, money was not an issue, so when ORCA failed, the GOP just carpet bombed. And the Republicans made that decision early too, meaning that regardless of whether Susy Q voted or not, she got a robocall.
2) It was never the GOP’s intention to cover every precinct, and any idea that it was — and that this could have worked perfectly even if it had worked perfectly — is crazy. If ORCA, for all its niftiness, had gone completely to plan, it wouldn’t have hit 10 percent of precincts in terms of coverage.