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.

As Ben Smith, then at Politico, reported that day, runners were sent from polling places back to canvass locations and field offices. Everything was shifted to paper and handled through workarounds. As Plouffe said at Harvard, "You have to have a backup plan."

But the Romney campaign did not have a backup plan for what to do if ORCA went down. The software was unveiled to volunteers at 6 a.m. on Election Day and turned out to be full of bugs -- a sign of inadequate advance testing. And, unlike Houdini, which was viewed as a bit of a luxury by the Obama campaign in 2008, ORCA had been billed to major Republican donors as the secret weapon that would enable Romney to best the vaunted Obama ground game. Even its name was a taunt: Obama's top-secret project to target voters was called Narwhal, and as Romney's communications director, Gail Gitcho, told NPR, "The Orca is the only known predator to that."

But there were two major differences between ORCA and Narwhal. The first was that Narwhal had nothing to do with Election Day. Instead, it was designed to identify potential Obama voters months before the election and determine the best ways to persuade them to vote. ORCA didn't find any new voters for Romney, it just was a way for them to keep track of the ones they had on Election Day, replacing less technologically sophisticated strike lists. The second was simply that Narwhal worked. ORCA didn't.

After the Obama campaign's failed Houdini experiment, it didn't give up on tracking Election Day returns electronically. Instead, as a source familiar with Obama efforts told me "we just decided not to be so ambitious.... It was basically determined that it wasn't worth the risk or the amount of work for every precinct in the country. The creators of Houdini came in from Google and decided that it wasn't possible to build a system that would scale that big. So ORCA was mainly just that Romney hadn't learned the lesson."

The name of the Obama program that replaced Houdini was Gordon, after J. Gordon Whitehead, the college student who allegedly caused the death of Harry Houdini by repeatedly punching him in the stomach. Romney's ORCA may not have caught its prey but, in 2012, Gordon did what it was supposed to: It bested Houdini.