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.
But, would it have mattered if ORCA had done its job?
Here is where the whole farce unravels, because the short answer is absolutely not, because robocalling is stupid and doesn’t work.
And we don’t just take our own word for it (even though we have hung up on every robocall we have ever gotten): Robocalls have been studied over and over again, and they simply don’t turn people out, forget about in the tens of thousands necessary to turn Romney’s loss into a win.
Some bloggers have cited the number of additional votes needed for a win by Romney in swing states (66,379 in Nevada, 73,189 in Florida, 103, 481 in Ohio and 115,910 in Virginia), with one lead critic writing that if not for Project ORCA, the GOP could have turned these states around.
The intricacies of the effectiveness — or ineffectiveness — of GOTV operations are a big subject best left for the coming weeks, but that charge is, as one data wizard put it, “total bullshit.”
Because the hard truth of the matter is that 30,000 volunteers and a website — no matter how devoted and how nifty — don’t actually swing 359,000 votes on the final day of a two-year election campaign.
So why has everyone turned on this simple website?
This is heart of the matter time, and should start with a series of questions: Why the hell have we been hearing about this thing, and how it lost the election, for the past couple of weeks? And why didn’t the Democrats not bay for blood when the Obama campaign’s similar GOTV program, Houdini, had hiccups in 2008? Well, here are three simple answers:
1) The ORCA-as-villain narrative is working because too many people find it convenient. As long as conservatives and Republicans are talking about ORCA, they aren’t talking about how the percent of Hispanics for Obama increased since 2008; they aren’t talking about how all of the Republicans consultants predicted that Obama’s voter turnout among his key constituencies would decrease, when on Election Day, it stayed level or increased; and they certainly aren’t talking about how Republicans, and their support groups, spent hundreds of millions of dollars without moving the meter one damn bit.
2) The ORCA-as-villain narrative is working because it’s an easy target. Most folks don’t really understand what ORCA did, or didn’t do, and so long as data guys aren’t invited on “Meet the Press” — and, by and large, they aren’t — folks aren’t going to find out.
3) The ORCA-as-villain narrative is working because Romney lost, and he lost big. The media only care what went wrong when people lose.
But the really scary part is that just because the wrong man was executed, doesn’t mean the real villain isn’t out there somewhere. The Grand Old Party lost the election to a battered president in the middle of a recession and a continuing global strategic crisis, and that happened because a lot of serious mistakes were made.
These are scary questions, and they necessitate scary answers.