ORCA vs. Narwhal in the 2012 US Presidential Race

shutterstock_275553794The 2012 U.S. presidential election provides two distinct examples of campaign technology innovation. One demonstrates the benefit of effective and strategic planning, while the second shows the pitfalls of an over-hyped technology.

During the campaign period, both the Democratic and the Republican candidates developed new tools. Project Narwhal, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign’s attempt at a real-time full data integration system, was largely hailed as a revolutionary success, while Project ORCA, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign’s vaunted get-out-the vote (GOTV) application, proved to be troublesome.[1]

During the 2008 elections, Barack Obama’s campaign staff recognized that they collected significant amounts of voter information in their field, finance and other departments, but lacked a central depository where the information could be stored, shared and accessed by staff and volunteers. To fix this shortcoming, the 2012 campaign created Project Narwhal, a consolidated central database that could help microtarget persuadable voters.[2] With detailed voter information records available to campaign staff and volunteers, the Democrats gained a competitive advantage by targeting messages and resources toward persuadable voters’ specific interests. The Obama campaign’s strategic ability to use Narwhal as the backbone of a system to enhance voter contact through data centralization, systems integration and microtargeted messaging proved significant during the campaign period.

While Narwhal was in development, Mitt Romney’s campaign was hard at work on Project ORCA, a web-based application for volunteers that campaign officials felt would turn out all supportive voters in key states.[3] Fundamentally different from Narwhal, ORCA was developed as a poll-monitoring web-based application.[4] ORCA would allow Romney campaign volunteers to report polling-place turnout data in real time, helping strategists track and redirect GOTV resources efficiently to underperforming districts. Instead, technical problems such as difficulties accessing the correct URL, a broken password reset tool and eventual system-wide crashes, as well as a poor volunteer training regimen, hampered reliable access to ORCA.[5] As the dust settled on election day, rather than increasing the efficiency of turnout operations, ORCA proved to be an ineffective use of campaign resources and a frustrating distraction.

Although both campaigns dedicated resources to developing new campaign technology, the 2012 U.S. presidential election exemplifies the varying influences of innovations in campaign technology. President Obama’s campaign benefited from the development and implementation of Project Narwhal because officials understood its propensity as a force multiplier for face-to-face voter contact, and because they allocated the requisite amount of resources and human capital ahead of time in order to test the system.[6] The Democrats succeeded with Narwhal because it connected well with the campaign’s strategic objectives of tailoring its message to those voters who would be most likely to connect with it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans felt they had enough electoral support and they simply needed to focus on turnout. However, the Romney campaign’s election day travails reflected overconfidence in an unprepared system. ORCA, designed as a GOTV aid to facilitate instant communication between volunteers and campaign staff, had neither the capacity to handle volunteer demand on election day nor the trained staff to compensate. Hamstrung by technical and operational hiccups, campaign officials’ confidence in ORCA’s ability to influence results proved a strategic miscalculation.

ORCA provides a cautionary example for political parties. New technology does not in itself guarantee victory; effective technology strategy requires integration with established campaign tactics, and successful implementation necessitates adequate resource allocation for testing and training.

Key Takeaways

  • Technology, implemented poorly, creates problems rather than solutions;
  • Narwhal maximized the Obama campaign’s data management system, allowing workers to improve contact with voters; and
  • The lackluster strategic planning process ahead of ORCA’s implementation — particularly campaign officials’ failure to appropriately stress-test the system — severely limited the technology’s election day impact.

[1] “How Romney’s ORCA was Defeated by Obama’s Narwhal & Dreamcatcher,” Daily Kos, November 10, 2012, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/11/10/1160145/-How-Romney-s-ORCA-was-defeated-by-Obama-s-Narwhal-Dreamcatcher#.

[2] Richard Stallman, “Did Hipster Tech Really Save the Obama Campaign?” Wired, June 4, 2013, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.wired.com/2013/06/did-hipster-technology-really-save-the-obama-campaign/.

[3] Alexis C. Madrigal, “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” The Atlantic, November 16, 2012, accessed November 25,2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/11/when-the-nerds-go-marching-in/265325/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephanie Marcus, “Mitt Romney’s Project ORCA Failure: Broken ORCA App Cost Him Thousands of Votes,” Huffington Post, November 10, 2012, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/10/mitt-romney-project-orca-broken-app-cost-thousands-votes_n_2109986.html.

[6] “Did Hipster Tech Really Save the Obama Campaign?”