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Tom Waterhouse: The Conservative Party needs its own Team Tech to win a majority in 2015

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 10.41.54Tom Waterhouse of Rhombus Communications. Follow Tom on Twitter.

Failing to win the Eastleigh by-election is a huge disappointment to the Conservative Party, but was perhaps not surprising. The entrenched position of the Liberal Democrats in Eastleigh – holding every single council ward in the constituency with some handsome majorities – meant it was always going to be an uphill struggle.

However, as has been reported elsewhere, problems with the Conservatives’ campaign technology, Merlin, hindered the campaign. Most activists who have been involved in a recent election could tell you of the problems they’ve encountered with Merlin, but the problems have been around for so long that local parties have learned to use Merlin for what it can do, and work around what it can’t. Poor performing campaign technology is not the main reason the Conservatives lost in Eastleigh. But there’s a case to say that poor performing technology cost Republican candidate Mitt Romney the US Presidency in November, and that it should serve as a lesson to UK Conservatives on how tiny margins can make a massive difference.

Romney lost the Electoral College vote to President Barack Obama 206 to 332. That 126 vote gap may seem wide until you consider that the Democrat campaign took the four key states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado by a total of just 405,679 votes. That’s a very small margin when you consider that 30 million people voted in those four states. It’s even smaller when you consider it’s just 0.3% of the total 123 million people who voted in the Presidential election. Those four states have a combined total of 69 Electoral College votes. So if Romney had been able to turn out an extra 406,000 Republican voters across those four states – where 10.3 million eligible voters did not vote – he would have secured 275 Electoral College votes to Obama’s 263. Tiny margins can make a massive difference.

Those tiny margins were provided by the respective Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts of the rival parties. Team Obama built a piece of campaign software called Narwhal – this allowed activists to access a set of campaign apps via a single interface, which in turn linked all shared data back to the centre. The Romney campaign had Project Orca – a voter monitoring operation to use on polling day that would identify which of their committed supporters had voted in order to focus resources on those who had not. (The name Orca apparently being chosen because the killer whale is the greatest natural predator of the Narwhal).

A key point here is that Obama’s victory was won by people, not by software. However, it was the software that allowed the campaign to organise its people so effectively. It was why the Obama campaign’s Chief Technology Officer, Harper Reed, described the software as a “force multiplier”, and it provided Obama with the edge he needed in key states.

Top US technology website Ars Technica describe in detail how the software was built, highlighting that the edge Obama gained “was provided by the work of a group of people unique in the history of presidential politics: Team Tech, a dedicated internal team of technology professionals who operated like an Internet startup, leveraging a combination of open source software, Web services, and cloud computing power.” The result was a superb piece of campaign technology, but tellingly it wasn’t ground-breaking software – it simply gave those running the ground campaign “the tools they needed to do their job”. So just how good were these tools? One of Team Obama’s campaign apps, Call Tool, made it possible for activists outside of swing states to help volunteers in those states by placing calls to voters. The tool was so effective, said Obama for America senior engineer, Clint Ecker, that "in some cases we ran out of people to call. We had so many volunteers using it, in some states we just called everybody."

Project Orca was a web-based app allowing local activists to run polling day operations. Kept a secret until eve of poll for fear of being hacked, it wasn’t stress tested before launch. It went live on the morning and was never checked for bugs or deficiencies internally. With the Presidential race too close to call, Mitt Romney needed his election machine firing on all cylinders. But launching such a large scale system so late in the day was a disaster waiting to happen.

It had been reported that Orca suffered a meltdown at 4pm on polling day, but in fact it had crashed continually throughout the day. Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director, admitted Orca buckled under the pressure of receiving so much data at once. 800 Romney staffers at its Boston HQ were inundated with calls from thousands of frustrated activists who were left without any means of running an effective GOTV operation. Accounts from Romney teams in Florida and Colorado recall how a litany of technical failures left Republican teams “flying blind”. Around 30,000 of Romney’s operatives therefore spent polling day “wandering around confused and frustrated”. The system malfunctioned so badly that volunteers wondered if the program had been hacked. Unfortunately for the Romney camp, no such excuse can be used to spare their blushes. While Obama’s Narwhal software allowed him to sail home, Romney’s Orca system washed up on the beach with a harpoon sticking out of it. For the Republicans, Project Orca was an unmitigated disaster. And it was all their own fault.

The contrast between the GOTV operations of the two campaigns could not be more stark. Obama’s technology was so good at focussing resources that they ran out of people to call in swing states on polling day. Romney’s was so bad it seems they didn’t call anyone. The Democrat’s campaign technology allowed them to squeeze every drop of juice from their support base, while Republican activists were left woefully under-utilised. It could have been so different; a system even half as good as Obama’s would surely have allowed the Republicans to find 406,000 voters among the 10 million that didn’t vote in four key states, and in turn put Mitt Romney in the White House. Instead they are left knowing that they could have won, but disastrous technological failures fatally undermined the campaign.

Conservative activists up and down the country may have some sympathy. Merlin is supposed to provide the engine of the Tory election machine, but its continued coughing and spluttering means it could certainly not be described as a “force multiplier”. The Conservative Party needs its own Team Tech to win a majority in 2015.


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