Orca

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Byron York, "What Sank McCain", NRO 11/5/2008:

In January, a few days before the South Carolina Democratic primary, I went to a Barack Obama rally in Columbia with a Republican friend who had never before seen Obama in action. This friend’s reaction: “Oh, s**t.” The super-enthusiastic crowd was about 3,000 strong — no big deal compared to the audiences Obama would later draw in the general election, but several times what John McCain was attracting in South Carolina at the time. My friend said the scene reminded him of the old clip from Jaws, in which the small-town sheriff, seeing how big the shark really is, says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

The line was actually "You're gonna need a bigger boat", at least in the movie:

The movie Jaws features Orca the fishing boat, so named because orcas (= "killer whales") are natural predators of sharks:

The Romney campaign featured ORCA the get-out-the-vote program (John Ekdahl, "The Unmitigated Disaster Known As Project ORCA", Ace of Spades 10/8/2012):

What is Project Orca? Well, this is what they told us:

Project ORCA is a massive undertaking – the Republican Party’s newest, unprecedented and most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election.

Pretty much everything in that sentence is false. The "massive undertaking" is true, however. It would take a lot of planning, training and coordination to be done successfully (oh, we'll get to that in a second). This wasn't really the GOP's effort, it was Team Romney's. And perhaps "unprecedented" would fit if we're discussing failure.

The entire purpose of this project was to digitize the decades-old practice of strike lists. The old way was to sit with your paper and mark off people that have voted and every hour or so, someone from the campaign would come get your list and take it back to local headquarters. Then, they'd begin contacting people that hadn't voted yet and encourage them to head to the polls. It's worked for years.

It would be a little weird, in my opinion, to name a GOTV program after a boat used to hunt a fictional monster shark. Clearly the shark would be Obama, or perhaps Obama's appeal — but in that metaphor, where are the Romney voters? Sitting at home waiting for the beaches to re-open? [Update: It seems that name was actually chosen because orcas kill and eat narwhals, and a Democratic voter-targeting project was named Narwhal; but the metaphorical emphasis remains on predation rather than on mobilization.]

And apparently Project Orca was a big step down from the traditional pencil-and-paper approach — Ekdahl's post presents an elaborate saga of mismanagement and disfunction, which ends this way:

So, the end result was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc. We lost by fairly small margins in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado. If this had worked could it have closed the gap? I sure hope not for my sanity's sake.

The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters).

Most of the problems that Ekdahl describes were more managerial than technical:

People had been kicked from poll watching for having no certificate. Others never received their pdf packets. Some were sent the wrong packets from a different area. Some received their packet, but their usernames and passwords didn't work.

But there were some technical (or at least design) problems as well:

Now a note about the technology itself. For starters, this was billed as an "app" when it was actually a mobile-optimized website (or "web app"). For days I saw people on Twitter saying they couldn't find the app on the Android Market or iTunes and couldn't download it. Well, that's because it didn't exist. It was a website. This created a ton of confusion. Not to mention that they didn't even "turn it on" until 6AM in the morning, so people couldn't properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand.

Next, and this part I find mind-boggingly absurd, the web address was located at "https://www.whateveritwas.com/orca". Notice the "s" after http. This denotes it's a secure connection, something that's used for e-commerce and web-based email. So far, so good. The problem is that they didn't auto-forward the regular "http" to "https" and as a result, many people got a blank page and thought the system was down. Setting up forwarding is the simplest thing in the world and only takes seconds, but they failed to do it.

Anyhow, ORCA the GOTV program seems to have suffered the same metaphorical fate as Orca the shark-hunting boat (except that the program's problems were self-inflicted):

There's been some push-back from the Romney campaign to the effect that Orca wasn't a complete failure, and anyhow didn't matter to the election one way or the other. Thus Natalie Jennings, "Romney digital director: Orca wasn't a loss", 11/9/2012:

The digital director for the Romney campaign responded to criticism in the blogosphere  of the campaign’s Election-Day “Orca” vote monitoring platform, saying the program had issues but for the most part performed its mission.

Zac Moffatt said that data about 14.2 million voters was recorded through Orca, including 5,397 instances of polling-place irregularities, and that data came back from 91 percent of counties being monitored.

Volunteers have started complaining online about lack of instructions, non-functional usernames and an overall system crash.

“I understand the frustrations over interruptions with so many people engaged,” Moffatt said. “But I have real numbers.”

Real numbers of dollars in new personal wealth, according to Ben Howe, "Campaign Sources: The Romney Campaign was a Consultant Con Job", Red State 11/9/2012:

So what caused the breakdown and why didn’t it get fixed in time? Well according to sources who worked closely with the program, the blame is at the feet of consultants. [...]

They say that the truth is the consultants essentially used the Romney campaign as a money making scheme, forcing employees to spin false data as truth in order to paint a rosy picture of a successful campaign as a form of job security.

Zac Moffatt, Digital Director for the Romney campaign, was specifically named as having “built a nest egg for himself and co-founder of Targeted Victory, Mike Beach,” and that they “didn’t get social” media and ignored objections from other consultants and staffers in the campaign.

So maybe, in the end, the difference between we and you mattered, because the line really should have been "Let us sell you a bigger boat".


A detailed pre-election take on Project Orca: Amanda Terkel, "Mitt Romney Campaign Plans Massive, State-Of-The-Art Poll Monitoring Effort", HuffPo 11/1/2012.

As for the source of Project Narwhal's name, Sasha Issenberg wrote ("Obama’s White Whale", Slate 2/15/2012) that

In a campaign that has grown obsessed with code-naming its initiatives, the integration project is known as Narwhal, after the tusked Arctic whale whose image (via a decal) adorns a wall adjacent to the campaign’s engineering department, as first reported by Newsweek. Narwhal remains a work-in-progress. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt refused to discuss the project, and the actual origins of their project’s code name are obscure, but at Obama’s headquarters the joke has become that reference to a mammal often called “the unicorn of the sea” has come to accurately describe an elusive quarry.

As Issenberg explains, Narwhal was not an election-day GOTV program, but an attempt "to link once completely separate repositories of information so that every fact gathered about a voter is available to every arm of the campaign". Why the Romney campaign's Project Orca was conceived as a way to kill and eat the Obama campaign's data-integration effort is a different metaphorical mystery.

For a pre-election discussion of the campaign's differing approaches to software development, see Hamish McKenzie, "In the Red Corner, Zac Moffatt Leads Romney’s Digital Drive to Topple Obama", Pando Daily 9/26/2012:

At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, tech people I talked to approvingly described Obama’s digital team as a “startup within a startup.” Rather than outsource the building of various tools to other companies, it has developed everything in-house.

When I put that claim to Moffatt, however, he protests that the opposite is true. The Obama campaign, he asserts, is more like government. “They’ve pulled everything together and determined that they can do everything best,” he says. “We actually function like a startup. We are finding the best minds and best companies, but if something doesn’t work it’s easy for us to iterate and pivot into a new direction.” By relying on in-house tools, you can very quickly get lumped with cumbersome legacy items that becomes costly over time. “For me, it looks much more like central planning than it does anything else.”

Additional Orca post-mortems: Sean Gallagher, "Inside Team Romney's whale of an IT meltdown: Orca, the Romney campaign's 'killer' app, skips beta and pays the price", Ars Technica 11/9/2012; Robert X. Cringely, "Unleashed! Project Orca, the campaign killer whale: Big data fails big time for the Romney camp as its smartphone app crashes spectacularly, right on schedule for Election Day", InfoWorld 11/9/2012; Adi Robertson, "Killer fail: how Romney's broken Orca app cost him thousands of votes", The Verge 11/9/2012; Michael Kranish, "ORCA, Mitt Romney’s high-tech get-out-the-vote program, crashed on Election Day", Boston Globe 11/9/2012; Rosslyn Smith, "Conservatives harpooned by Orca", American Thinker 11/11/2012; Michael Falcone, "Romney Campaign Acknowledges High-Tech Election Day Monitoring System ‘Had Its Challenges’", ABC News 11/10/2012; Maggie Haberman & Alexander Burns, "Mitt Romney’s ORCA program couldn't stay afloat", Politico 11/9/2012.

Catherine Ann Fitzpatrick tried to figure out who got the Orca development contract ("Was Al Gore's Dev In Charge of Romney's Aps?", and follows the digital breadcrumbs to what she thinks is the answer:

Ekdahl didn't say — but I found it. The organization is called Targeted Victory, and they have Romney logos flashing on their site now.

Look at Our Team -- typical bloated over-staffed organization top heavy with marketers and underpaid drones — and then see how many devs there are.

Just two. Apparently under the direction — in between them and Moffat — of a senior project manager whose credentials include working for United Nations Women, The Getty Institute, UNESCO, Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism and the Quito Tourism Bureau.

So…All of this complicated, national, critical system rested on the slender shoulders of two dudes 20-something or 30-something at best — with maybe their project manager also bringing them the pizza and yelling at them?

I was afraid to click, because I knew what I would find.

Sure enough, what I found were two guys who looked like very likely Obama voters.

Commenters on the Ars Technica article quote unsourced rumors that development was outsourced to India via Accenture. I'm skeptical of both theories, and look forward to learning who really did the project.

Update — Still no clarity on who built Orca — but for the other side's story, see Alexis Madrigal, "When the Nerds Go Marching In", The Atlantic 11/16/2012.

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17 Comments »

  1. D said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    Supposedly, the connection to Jaws is accidental. It was named Orca, because the Obama campaign had a similar program called Narwhal. Orcas are the only known predator of Narwhals, and thus the name.

    [(myl) Indeed. Still, the metaphorical emphasis remains on predation rather than mobilization: The Republican GOTV program is named for the animal (orca) that kills the animal (narwhal) that a Democratic data-integration project is named for, just as the fishing boat in Jaws is named for the animal (orca) that kills the animal (great white shark) that stars in the movie. Anyhow, thanks for the correction -- I've updated the post to reflect it.]

  2. [links] Link salad crawls through chemo fog | jlake.com said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    [...] Orca — Language Log is both funny and serious about the failure of Money Boo Boo's Orca software. [...]

  3. Henning Makholm said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Wow. Agitators systematically monitoring who goes to vote and who doesn't? Sounds like something out of 1930s Europe. Over here if you tried to pull something like that (and were not quick to fold when the chief poll worker told you nicely to bugger off) you'd be facing prison terms for attempted voter intimidation.

  4. Ed said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    I can't believe you keep referring to Orca as a giant shark. It's a KILLER WHALE!

    [(myl) I'm afraid that you're the one that's confused. Repeating slowly: In the movie Jaws, the fishing boat is named Orca precisely because orcas (= killer whales) are predators of sharks. And the Romney campaign named its program Orca because orcas (= killer whales) are predators of Narwhals, and the Obama campaign had previously named its information-integration project "Narwhal".

  5. Ed said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:58 am

    Oh, i thought it came from the movie Orca, which was a cheap Jaws knock-off!

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    Ekdahl wrote, "…the web address was located at 'https://www.whateveritwas.com/orca'." My entry (forgive me) in Lingua Franca's new-prescriptive-rule contest was that every locative statement had to use "located" or a synonym, but "the address was located at…" is beyond anything I'd ever envisioned.

    Also, the Romney campaign (I think) wrote, "the Republican Party’s newest, unprecedented and most technologically advanced plan…" The positive adjective between the two superlatives messes with my internal parser—am I the only one?

  7. jfruh said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    @Henning Makholm — it's actually fairly common practice here from parties across the political spectrum. The key to making this non-creepy is that the only names you have on your list are names that the campaigns have already supplied as likely as voters for their side, which they've gathered at some point in their campaign. You're not hunting down opposing voters and you're not interacting with them in any way other than to see if they've voted or not. I guess it feels non-sketchy to me because it has a "positive" intention (getting people to vote) rather than a "negative" one (stopping people from voting, or forcing them to vote in a certain way). Obviously with secret ballots there's no way to know how the people you've targeted have actually voted.

    There are fairly strict rules on how poll watchers can behave that seeks to keep this from crossing the lines, and poll watchers are routinely shooed away from polling places if they don't abide by them. One of the chief ways they make sure they're official is to have a certificate from a campaign (though as you can see in the story of Project ORCA, that didn't work out for many and they were fact booted).

  8. Nate said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    I wonder whether the narwhal on the engineers' wall is a reference to "the narwhal bacons at midnight"? To exploit the representativeness heuristic, 20-35 year old engineers fit the redditor demographic, and the campaign did have an Ask Me Anything session on reddit a couple months back (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/z1c9z/i_am_barack_obama_president_of_the_united_states).

    [(myl) This seems quite plausible.]

  9. Ethan said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: In this context "located at" sounds almost right to me. The link given is a URL (Universal Resource Locator); on the other end of that link is the [IP] address in question. The address is /behind/attached to/represented by/in/at/ the URL. In a geekier context one might say "the URL for the address is…", but anyone who thinks "URL" probably knows that the L is short for "locator", and it's only a short step to rearrange "the locator for the address is" to "the address is located at".

  10. Henning Makholm said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

    @jfruh: Even if each individual ballot is secret, just noting down who votes and who doesn't sounds plenty intimidating to me. What's to stop someone from declaring that a bunch of randomly chosen [insert demographic group that tends to favor an opposing party] are their "likely voters", and then discreetly and deniably encourage rumors that not having a checkmark next to your name on that list tends to confer a health benefit post-election?

    [(myl) In most (all?) states, whether or not you voted in a given election is a matter of public record, in principle available to all (though there may be a significant charge for a statewide data dump).]

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Just a note that "GOTV" is pretty opaque for us foreigners. Even when I Googled a definition I had to skip past an Austrian TV channel and a music festival.

  12. Brett said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

    @Peter Taylor: It's opaque to most Americans as well. I'm a real political junkie, and I (long ago) volunteered to work on some election campaigns. Yet every election season, I have wrack my brains to remember that "GOTV" stands for "get out the vote."

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 12:14 am

    @Ethan: Thanks, I know so little about the Web that I didn't know there was an address behind the URL, so maybe I misunderstood "the web address was located at…" However, I think that if someone is going to be pedantic enough to avoid "the web address was https://…", they can do better than being almost right.

  14. zythophile said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    Canvassing likely voters, recording their names and then stationing tellers outside the polling booth on election day to get voters' poll number and cross them off your list has long been standard in the UK for all parties. The Labour Party uses the "Reading system", which dates from 1945, and records names on "Mikardo pads", named for the MP Ian Mikardo.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    If you are considered a likely voter by one side (which may be as simple as your party registration, although local operatives may have more sophisticated lists) it is a win-win to vote first thing in the morning, because then you will be checked off the list and for the rest of the day your phone will NOT ring with helpful reminders to get out to vote, offers of assistance in getting to the polls, etc etc etc.

    At least in the New York area, the records of who voted in which election are sufficiently easily accessible that it is fairly common practice for the media and/or political adversaries of a celebrity spouting off about politics and/or someone who has achieved name recognition in another field deciding to run for public office to do some digging and announce that So-and-So, while professing to be so interested in contentious matters of public policy the future of the community, has failed to bother to vote in X out of the last Y opportunitiies to do so.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

    I'm sure I'm not the only one who initially misread @zythophile's post as mentioning "Mikado pads". There is beauty in the bellow of the blast…

  17. November 12, 2012 Show Prep for “The Brenner Brief” Radio Show – The Brenner Brief said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

    [...] Orca (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu) [...]

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