When Republican fundraisers solicited the party’s big donors on behalf of Mitt Romney this year, the centerpiece of the pitch was a state-of-the-art campaign to identify the party’s likely voters and make sure they came to the polls on Election Day. Political pros call these county-by-county, block-by-block campaigns the ground game. And while most of the media attention focuses on candidate speeches, debates, and ad buys, it’s the ground game where elections are won and lost.
On Tuesday, Republicans lost the election on the ground. As the Republican Party picks up the pieces from overwhelming defeat, the first fingers are being pointed at a GOP ground game that insiders describe to The Daily Beast as nothing short of a fiasco.
The story starts in 2008. The Romney campaign sought to counter Team Obama’s highly touted, high-tech voter-targeting system, nicknamed Narwhal after the Arctic sea mammal. Narwhal provided the Obama campaign with reams of specific data on voters—finding single women in conservative counties, for instance, or families with children who have disabilities.
In 2012, the Romney campaign unveiled its own killer app and called it Project Orca—the fierce great whale that is the natural predator of the Narwhal. The only problem: Boston’s Orca turned out to be toothless.
The system was different from Narwhal. It was designed to allow Romney poll watchers, in real time, to identify likely Romney supporters who still had not shown up at polling stations on Election Day. By uploading the names of people who had voted, the computers back in Boston could figure out who still needed to be targeted and turned out.
At least that’s the way it was supposed to work. But on Tuesday, it became clear that the deployment of Orca was doing more harm than good. “I think it’s fair to say that pretty much everything about the system that was supposed to work actually failed,” said one campaign official who witnessed the breakdown from the Romney war room on the floor of Boston’s TD Garden.
The Romney high command had cloaked the system in secrecy to maintain what it hoped would be a true competitive turnout advantage. But by limiting the number of people with access to Orca, the campaign was not able to train its field operatives to use it or do the necessary beta-testing to work out the kinks that typically plague new software.
“It was a snake-oil kind of program. I say this as a web developer. This was throwing money at a product that just didn’t work.”
“It did not work perfectly,” said Rich Beeson, the Romney campaign’s political director, in an interview. He acknowledged that Orca crashed in the morning on Election Day. At first the campaign thought the system had been hacked, he said. Passwords and user names for the 34,000 volunteers using the program had to be reset.
But Beeson also said Orca was able to provide voting data on 91 percent of the precincts and accounted for turning out some 14.3 million voters. “At the end of the day I can look any donor in the eye and say we used our resources effectively,” he said. “This is the first time we have attempted to do anything on this scale. By no means was it an abject failure.”
Others who worked on the ground for the campaign disagree, however. In many instances, the voter lists that were loaded on the smart phones of field operatives didn’t match the precincts where they’d been sent, campaign officials said. In addition, there were massive credentialing problems, so Romney poll watchers were not permitted to operate at many precincts. In many rural precincts, poor cellphone coverage made it difficult or impossible for Romney forces to transmit information. Finally, because poll watchers tend to be older, tech-averse volunteers and because there was so little training, many of them simply couldn’t master the technical aspects of the task.
“We were sold on Mitt as this brilliant manager and turnaround artist,” said John Ekdahl, one of those poll watchers in Florida who used Orca. “But it was a snake-oil kind of program. I say this as a Web developer. This was throwing money at a product that just didn’t work.” Ekdahl first published his critique of Orca on the conservative website Ace of Spades. Other poll watchers who asked not to be named had similar complaints.
The mood grew increasingly grim on Tuesday as Romney officials realized that their supposed state-of-the-art answer to the Chicago’s turnout juggernaut was a bust. Walking down the central aisle of the Romney war room you didn’t hear the humming of a well-oiled turnout machine, one campaign official recalled. You heard the panicky tones of operatives flooded with calls from the field about technical snafus and mass confusion.
As campaign officials monitored central computers in Boston, instead of taking in the metrics of a proficient ground game, they saw depressing evidence of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight—anxious messages from operatives who were at the wrong polling place, couldn’t work their smart phones, or were barred from a precinct because they lacked the proper credentials. “It was amateur hour,” lamented one Romney official.
There were other problems for Romney’s ground game in the battleground states. The Obama for America team, for example, had field operations in states like Ohio stay behind after the 2008 election and slowly but surely pick up steam as Election Day 2012 approached. The Republicans closed their field offices after the 2010 midterms.
“We were never going to have the same size and staff as the Obama campaign,” Beeson said. He added that the Republican National Committee was several million dollars in debt by the time Michael Steele left the job, putting resource constraints on the party in terms of operating field offices in states like Ohio.
Finally, the Republicans were never able to match the Obama campaign’s ability to use data from purchase histories, voting registration, and campaign contacts to tailor specific messages to specific voters in a process known as micro-targeting. Republicans first pioneered the use of this kind of data in the 2004 election cycle but mainly used the data to target television ads, direct mail, and robocalls, according to Republican strategists. The Democrats were able to use this kind of data in deploying armies of volunteer door-knockers and others who targeted their voters over time.
Beeson acknowledged that his party will be seeking to learn from the Democrats in terms of micro-targeting. “They have taken this to an organic, micro, micro level,” he said. “We will be looking at how they did it.”
At the end of the day, Beeson said he thought Romney ran a good campaign. It’s just that Obama ran a better one. “With the time and resources we had, the campaign was run very effectively,” he said. “We just did not see them being able to turn out the numbers they turned out.”