Orca Failed; but So Did Obama's 2008 Version of the Same

Republicans tried to match the Obama campaign online, but failed to learn from the failures of the Democrat's 2008 campaign.

orcasEric Gaillard/Reuters

Already, much of the blame for Mitt Romney's loss is being attributed to the failure of ORCA, a high-tech software platform that was supposed to enable the Romney campaign to track its voters casting ballots in real time. More than 34,000 Republican volunteers at polling places across the country were supposed to take down the names of supporters who voted, then use PDAs to enter them onto a mobile website, allowing the Romney campaign to strike those who'd already voted from their lists and refocus resources on those who hadn't yet made it to the polls. Had it worked, it would have given the Romney campaign a precinct-by-precinct picture of Election Day turnout across the country. But it didn't work.

The result was that Romney campaign's Boston war room was flying blind on Election Day. They had expected to know within minutes if any Republican voter in a swing state had cast a ballot. Instead, they were stuck refreshing CNN.com for vote totals.

This was a disaster for Romney -- but it also wasn't the first time such a massive technical meltdown had happened on Election Day, and it's unlikely to have been the reason the he lost the race. After all, the Obama campaign's multimillion dollar software designed for the same purpose also crashed on Election Day in 2008, and Barack Obama still ended up winning the presidency.

In 2008, the Obama campaign unveiled a revolutionary new program called Houdini that would magically make the names of those who had already voted disappear from the Get Out The Vote lists. The program -- which was only reserved for "tier 1 precincts" that the Obama campaign deemed most crucial -- was surprisingly low-tech. There would be a poll watcher and poll reporter assigned to each targeted precinct. The poll watcher would take a list of targeted voters with pulltabs next to each voter's name. When that voter had cast a ballot, the pulltab, which contained a unique ID number labeling the voter, would be removed from the list and handed to the poll reporter. At a specified times, the poll reporter would go outside and, on a cellphone, dial into an IVR system run by the Obama campaign. (IVR is the technical name for the automated phone system that asks you "to press one for English.) The reporter would then enter in each ID code on the smartphone and the data would be digitally linked to the Obama campaign's voter database. Once the voter ID was entered, that voter's name would be removed from the lists and the campaign had one less person to doorknock or call.

This was supposed to work seamlessly and it was tested by organizers across the country in advance on several dry runs. There was even a full-scale statewide practice when it was used for the Wisconsin Democratic primary on September 9, 2008. But that proved all for naught.

On Election Day, the call volume was even more than anticipated and took out the entire phone system for the Obama campaign. It didn't just effect the reporting of vote totals but effected anything that involve a central campaign phone line. If you were calling to ask where your polling place was or calling the voter protection hotline to report an irregularity, odds were that you weren't getting through. The result was a mess. As Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe put it when asked publicly about this at the Harvard Institute of Politics after the election, "basically the technology kinda crashed." The critical difference between that failure and the one the Romney team experienced last Tuesday was that the Obama campaign was prepared for the worst.

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Ben Jacobs is a former reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and contributor to the Boston Globe editorial page.

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