WASHINGTON – To hear Mitt Romney’s supporters tell it, “Project ORCA,” billed as a one-of-a-kind Web app aimed at targeting voters in the swing states to make sure they voted, would take a big bite out of President Obama’s chances for re-election.
“There’s nothing that the Obama data team, there’s nothing that the Obama campaign, there’s nothing that President Obama himself can do to even come close to what we are putting together here,” Dan Centinello, a 28-year-old Lancaster native and deputy political director for the Romney campaign, told volunteers on a training call in late October, according to the Huffington Post.
But by midday on Election Day, ORCA was, as many bloggers have noted, a beached whale.
Struggling to cope with thousands of Romney volunteers trying to use the program to identify voters and get them to the polls, the system crashed, leaving Romney headquarters in Boston unable to keep track of its own “ground game.”
Two weeks later, many on the political right say Project Orca’s failure was a key factor in Romney’s loss – and some are blaming Centinello for it all.
For proof, just go to www.dancentinello.com, which is definitely not Dan Centinello’s official website.
“Dan Centinello, College Dropout and the Man Responsible for Project ORCA (aka. the Man Who May Have Cost Mitt Romney the Presidency in 2012),” says the website, whose URL, or Internet address, was registered by Domainsbyproxy.com, which hides the identity of the person or persons behind it.
Some political pros say the website’s contention is a gigantic and malicious stretch – in part because it’s unclear exactly how much responsibility Centinello bears for the disaster, which Romney insiders aren’t discussing.
“I don’t think [the website] is fair at all,” said Eric Frenchman, who ran online advertising for the 2008 presidential bid of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It’s kind of sad.”
Still, political scientists contacted for this article said the collapse of Romney’s get-out-the-vote effort probably cost the Republican ticket plenty of votes where it mattered the most.
“I doubt that it would have made a difference in the outcome, but the election would have been much closer,” said James E. Campbell, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo.
Centinello, who had attended Canisius College, told The Buffalo News last summer that he was working 20-hour days poring over data and “microtargeting voters.” He did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Former Romney campaign officials and Zac Moffatt, the campaign’s top digital consultant, also did not respond to messages.
But much of the Project ORCA story has been told by Romney volunteers who witnessed the meltdown firsthand.
The problems predated Election Day. Some volunteers never got the instruction packet that was to include all the information they needed, such as the polling place they were supposed to staff.
“Either this whole thing was a farce, or they didn’t know what they were doing,” said a Romney volunteer from North Carolina who never got her packet and who asked not to be identified by name.
Meanwhile, John Ekdahl, a Romney volunteer and blogger from Jacksonville, Fla., got his packet the night before the election. But it didn’t say he needed a poll-watching certificate. So when he showed up at his assigned polling place, the people staffing the polls asked him to leave.
Other volunteers made it to the polls but were left helpless after ORCA crashed. “ORCA very well COULD have been amazing, let me report in real time, to GOTV [get out the vote],” Shoshanna McCrimmon, county captain for Romney in Bland County, Va., tweeted on Election Day. “Unfortunately, lots of us couldn’t log in.”
Worse yet, the Romney campaign had no backup plan in place – in case ORCA failed – to revert to the traditional paper “strike lists” of voters who had voted and those who had not.
On top of that, Eckdahl and others who have probed the system’s crash noted that ORCA wasn’t even fully tested before Election Day.
“To be the Republican nominee and not have all the bells and whistles worked out long before Election Day is just mind-boggling,” said Frenchman, the former McCain digital adviser.
The scope of ORCA’s problems became clear in the days after the election, and the right-wing blogosphere was livid about it all.
“The Romney campaign’s Project ORCA collapsed,” Erick Erickson wrote at RedState.com. “They might as well have called it Shamu because it bit the leg of the campaign and wouldn’t let go.”
Meanwhile, Joel B. Pollak of Breitbart.com contrasted the ORCA meltdown with the Obama campaign’s smooth-as-silk operation. For example, it posted three volunteers at each Virginia polling place and had no trouble keeping track of who had voted and who had not in each precinct. The Obama campaign also used a Web-based app, but it appears to have operated flawlessly.
Pollak also contended that because the election was so close in the key swing states of Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado, all that each of the Romney volunteers in those states would have had to do was get 20 additional Romney voters to the polls in order for the Republican to win the election.
“There was, in fact, massive suppression of the Republican vote – by the Romney campaign, through the diversion of nearly 40,000 volunteers to a failing computer program,” Pollak wrote.
Meanwhile, Lara Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University who has closely studied the election results and election polls, noted that Romney underperformed in Ohio’s rural counties – a fact that might be tied to the ORCA failure. She said she doubted that ORCA cost Romney the election, but added: “Is it likely that it had a substantial effect? Yes.”
It’s unclear how much responsibility Centinello should bear for all the troubles. Romney volunteers such as Ekdahl noted that Centinello was personally answering emails about ORCA in the days leading up to the election – an indication that he might have taken on a task that no one staffer could ever perform, given that 37,000 volunteers were expected to work with the system.
“My knee-jerk reaction was that he was the problem,” Eckdahl said. “But now I think it was more widespread than that. He was given the task of running something that was unmanageable for one person.”