Thursday, February 7, 2013

ORCA - The Killer Whale That Turned on Romney

Orca - also referred to as the killer whale. You have seen these whales in movies (remember Free Willy?) and at SeaWorld (try to forget the one that held the trainer under water), but have you ever seen one in a presidential campaign? Mitt Romney felt that by relying on an Orca, in this case The ORCA Project, he would end up swimming right to the White House.

The ORCA Project was a mobile web application created to track votes in swing-state precincts and alert the Romney team of locations where there was a need to get more Romney voters to the booths. They were able to upload lists of registered users in the precinct they were assigned to and then swipe next to a voter's name, indicating they had voted. The analytic software then went to work on identifying who had voted, which party they were affiliated with, who had previously been identified as a Romney supporter but had not yet voted, etc. This would then prompt a small army to call or personally visit individuals in that precinct and invite them to go vote for Romney.

The ORCA Project was supposed to give the Romney campaign its own analytics on what was happening at polling places and to help the campaign direct get-out-the-vote efforts in the key battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Colorado. [1] With these analytics and an action plan in place, they hoped to get more Romney voters to the polling stations and ultimately get Romney to the White House.  You can even see how excited Romney's Communications Director was about The ORCA Project on YouTube:

In order to support this whale of a project, the Romney team had more than 800 volunteers at headquarters to monitor the analytics via a Web-based management console. There was even a backup voice  system to allow poll volunteers to call in information from their location if for some reason they were unable to access the web.[2]

Unfortunately, ORCA had a tough time swimming when election day came. Even though they did perform numerous stress-tests, the users received very little or no advanced training on the system. Most important of all, there was never a test-run completed on the public internet. The whale flopped; nearly all users reported that the ORCA web page was repeatedly inaccessible and they were unable to enter information for the analytics to flex its muscles.[3] Romney lost the election, but the question still remains: if the analytics would have work as planned, would Governor Romney today be addressed as President Romney? The Romney campaign felt this was their secret weapon - and that alone tells me how truly powerful analytics can be in not only traditional product advertising and traffic monitoring, but also in winning political elections.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. When you’re dealing with 34,000 people across the country, there’s going to be any number of issues, whether it’s user error or smart phone didn’t work. The system wasn’t perfect, But as it cycles, this will be the beginning of something that’s going to be very, very effective.

    In any case, the campaign had only a few months to assemble the turnout system: You’re sort of building an airplane as you take off from the aircraft carrier.

  3. Yea it doesn't sound like anyone was prepared. I heard that ORCA's servers even went down on election day. I'm sure that didn't help either. It'll be interesting to see its use in the future.

  4. I think the problem with the ORCA system is that there were not enough testing done before rolling out the app. I watched the night before the election day and Romey and Ann both calling each other as Mr. President and first lady Ann. They were very confident that they are at the gate of the White house. It must be very disappointed for them when they lost something that they thought is within their reach.

    I do think something like this system will be very effective in any future election.

  5. Fascinating article, I had no idea this project ever existed. Demonstrates the importance of experimentation and iteration, as well as assembling the right team.

  6. Excellent way way to shed light on the importance of trial runs & insufficient user education for a system like this to work. I like the fact you used a interesting recent real life application in your blog.