The 2012 Campaign: Infrastructure, Organization, and Technical Failure
There have been a number of first hand accounts, much speculation, and lots of finger-pointing about the Romney campaign’s Project ORCA. Billed as a “massive, state-of-the-art poll monitoring effort” by campaign sources, ORCA was to entail thousands of volunteers across the country updating a central database as voters went to the polls so that campaign staffers could monitor returns and field resources could be directed efficiently towards those who had not yet voted.
In the end, ORCA failed to provide the “unprecedented advantage on Election Day” that the governor himself declared in a video for volunteers. While it is always highly problematic to rely on media accounts of campaigns in their aftermath, it is appears that the effort suffered from a lack of planning into how volunteers would be organized and managed on election day, and widespread technical failures. My aim here is to argue (cautiously, given that we lack firm empirical data) that ORCA is a case of the failure of infrastructure and organization, an argument grounded in what I have learned about campaigning over the past decade (the first chapter of my book, which lays out this argument, is available online .)
The idea of monitoring the vote in real time that lies behind ORCA is an old one, and staffers and consultants aligned with both parties have engaged in various attempts to realize it over much of the last decade. In 2004, for instance, the Democratic-allied firm Voter Activation Network (now NGP-VAN) piloted a system based on bar codes scanned into Palm Pilots and in 2006 the firm used four-digital voter identification codes; neither proved a compelling solution to the need for real-time systems. It was during the 2008 cycle that the Obama campaign launched Project Houdini, which was designed to be a system for systematically updating the voter file as citizens went to the polls. Houdini (like ORCA, it appears) was the product of months of technical development in the middle of the election cycle. The campaign commissioned VAN to build the system once Obama became the nominee. And, like ORCA, Houdini also largely failed. The project was premised, in large part, on an Interactive Voice Response phone system, in which volunteers called an 800 number and punched in four-digit codes assigned to voters who had turned out. At 8:30am on election day, the phone system crashed, and as a result the national field director abandoned the program (except in a few states that were relying on a mobile version of Houdini, but even then it was largely a supplemental tool).
While there has not been systematic research on the aftermath of the 2008 election cycle, it appears that the 2012 Obama campaign was the product of systematic assessment of the failures of 2008 and considerable investments to correct for them. Realizing that data integration was a significant problem during the 2008 campaign, that Project Houdini lacked critical capacities, and that the campaign lacked many tools and work practices for integrating new media and field efforts, former campaign staffers working for Organizing for America, party operatives, and a network of Democratic-affiliated firms and interest groups spent the next three years thinking through how to improve these things for 2012. Through developing and field testing new systems during the 2010 midterm elections, it appears that campaign and party operatives fine tuned their organizational structures and technical systems for 2012, so that when the campaign’s engineers came on board they were concerned with using technology as a “force multiplier” for ground efforts and problems of scale. This was crucial – not least because the electoral context had changed. As one senior level staffer on the 2012 campaign told me, “if in 2008 enthusiasm is 100%, our organization only captured 60%. If in 2012 enthusiasm is 80%, our organization can capture 90%.”
How should we think about Houdini, ORCA, and the Obama campaign’s success in 2012? For one, system and technical failures are revealing of the state of the two parties, specifically the consultant, technology firm, and party organization parts of their extended networks. As a number of scholars who have developed a parties-as-networks approach argue, parties should be conceptualized as “decentralized, nonhierarchical, fluid systems with porous boundaries among a wide array of actors” that include media, interest groups, and consultants in addition formal party staffers and elected officials. I would also add a set of technical artifacts that campaigns can draw on such as party-maintained databases used by candidates and other actors in the party network (the technical and institutional histories of these systems vary). This network, more generally, is part of the infrastructure that campaigns have at their disposal, although they must assemble and coordinate particular configurations of component parts.
I have yet to see a developed history of the Republican Party’s campaign infrastructure from 2004 to 2012. I tell the story of the Democratic Party’s infrastructure building during the crucial years from 2004-2008, which includes a set of technologies, firms, and organizing practices. Chairman Dean orchestrated both the building of the party’s first national voter database and interface system that has become the foundation for all Democratic field and new media voter contacts, as well as invested in the commercial platform that eventually became My.BarackObama.com (in addition to powering dozens of other campaigns.) But in many ways the Republican Party’s infrastructural history may be more interesting. By all accounts in my book interviews, George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, the network of consultants that served it, and the party’s voter database and field operations were far more sophisticated than those of his Democratic counterpart in 2004. And yet, eight years later, the Romney campaign appeared to be both a full cycle behind his counterpart in the same metrics, and even seemed to have lost ground in terms of the basic campaign infrastructure Bush drew on eight years earlier. In other words, if infrastructure encompasses the technical artifacts, organizational forms, and social practices that provide background contexts for action, we can think about Project ORCA as not so much an isolated case of technical breakdown, as a manifestation of a larger lack of infrastructure within the Republican Party’s extended network.
Finally, there is the question of the internal campaign organization that gave rise to Project ORCA. Ultimately this is a question of how technical development is organized within campaigns. With all the usual caveats, early accounts of ORCA suggest that it was the work of an internal team of IT specialists and volunteers, not outside vendors. This is not uncommon – even for a presidential campaign. The Howard Dean campaign in 2004 had an internet department that operated much like an autonomous development lab, relying on a staffers and volunteers to build an array of technologies for the campaign. Indeed, one reason a number of Dean’s former technology staffers launched firms specializing in political technologies after the election was because they saw firsthand how challenging it was to develop new tools in the crucible of a campaign, and wanted to create a stable, long-term, and well-managed development environment that enabled programmers committed to Democratic causes to be active in politics. What appears to have subsequently emerged is a hybrid model on the Democratic side of the aisle. A few speciality firms provide technology services to candidates, but in both Obama’s 2008 and 2012 runs a lot of work was also handled in-house by hybrid teams composed of technology specialists coming from the commercial sector and new media campaign veterans that worked in collaboration with these firms. In 2008, for instance, the voter registration application Vote For Change was built in-house and the campaign actually hired developers based at the firm Blue State Digital to work full time on the campaign’s projects. In 2012, much technical development occurred in-house, by staffers who at times collaborated with, at others built upon work conducted by, Democratic-allied firms.
My argument in the book is that understanding 2008 requires looking at how this technical development was managed internally and integrated with the larger campaign structure in accordance with electoral strategy. A key reason for the success of the 2008 campaign was a senior leadership that invested in new media early, created the organizational structures that made new media and data operations a central part of the campaign, and helped integrate the work of these staffers with the finance, field, and communications operations.
All of which takes us back to Project ORCA. It is impossible to state with any degree of certainty what failed, although it appears that it was ultimately a problem of organization and execution. Organization in terms of how ORCA was integrated with the campaign, electoral strategy, and the larger field effort, as well as the structures the campaign had to train and manage volunteers. Execution in terms of how these technical systems were implemented with respect to the needs and practices of field staffers and volunteers.
Looking ahead, the question is whether, after this cycle, there will be an investment in Republican Party infrastructure and the emergence of a new generation of campaigners similar to what happened after the ruins of Dean’s presidential bid.