Project ORCA: Mitt Romney Campaign Plans Massive, State-Of-The-Art Poll Monitoring Effort

Originally published November 1, 2012

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been quietly assembling a massive, technologically sophisticated poll monitoring program that staffers believe will be their secret weapon in defeating President Barack Obama.

Project ORCA will rely on 34,000 volunteers in swing states on Election Day, in an effort to keep track of who is voting at key polling places. Romney staffers will use the data to help them target their get-out-the-vote efforts before the polls close, in hopes of gaining an edge over Obama’s grassroots operation.

“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,” Romney Deputy Political Director Dan Centinello said Wednesday night in a training call for Project ORCA volunteers, which The Huffington Post called into.

On Election Day, the Romney campaign will send one or more volunteers to important swing-state polling places, noting every single person who comes in to vote.

That, in itself, is nothing new; both Democratic and Republican campaigns always monitor turnout to aid their GOTV efforts and generally keep track of progress.

In 2008, the Obama campaign used a system called “Project Houdini,” where each targeted voter was assigned a four-digit code. Throughout the day, volunteers then dialed that code into a national hotline to report on who voted.

What’s different about the Romney campaign’s approach is that it will be utilizing smartphone technology to receive more data in real time, allowing it to quickly redirect resources to areas where there may be low turnout and get voters there out to the polls.

Volunteers will have the Project ORCA web-based app on their smartphone. Once they log in, they will see the names and ages of every eligible voter in that precinct. When someone votes, the volunteer will simply be able to slide a bar and note it. Individuals without smartphones will be able to print a list of voters — provided by the Romney campaign — and check off individuals who come to the polling place, and then call that information into headquarters periodically.

If volunteers run into any problems — such as an incorrect voting list, broken voting machines, fraud or illegal activity — they can press a yellow button on their phone to instantly report them to the Romney campaign legal team, and staffers will be assigned to help volunteers around the country. Volunteers will also be able to send instant messages — similar to a Twitter feed or discussion board — with anecdotes about what they are seeing.

Training materials explaining the technology were provided to The Huffington Post by multiple sources.

At campaign headquarters in Boston, other volunteers will be taking all the information sent in by those working with Project ORCA and combining it with consumer data the campaign has purchased about individuals. They will use the data to organize last-minute campaign efforts, including social media outreach, phone-banking and traditional door-to-door visits.

In addition, Centinello will be in an “inner war room” with the campaign manager, the national political director and Romney himself.

“The governor loves seeing data, he loves seeing numbers and he’s a very strategic person; he’s a very smart man,” Centinello said on Wednesday’s Project ORCA call. “So he actually loves being inside these war rooms, seeing the data come in and seeing exactly what’s going on out there, so we can all put our heads together and say, ‘Okay, we need to move resources here. We need to shift resources from here.'”

On Wednesday afternoon, the campaign sent volunteers a video from Romney, thanking them for their help.

“With state-of-the-art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on Election Day,” said Romney.

“Project ORCA will give us an enormous advantage on Election Day,” added Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul in a statement to The Huffington Post. “By knowing the current results of a state, we can continue to adjust and micro target our get-out-the-vote efforts to ensure a Romney victory.”

Scott Goodstein, the external online director for the Obama campaign in 2008 and the founder of Revolution Messaging, said that while Project ORCA may use different technology, the overall strategy behind it is nothing new.

“We’ve already done this through text messaging and interactive voice since the early days of the Iowa caucus in January 2008,” said Goodstein, noting that before that, campaigns would give volunteers quarters to call in results at pay phones.

He also questioned whether the strategy would really make as much of a difference as the Romney campaign was suggesting it would, arguing that if a candidate hasn’t reached voters by Election Day, it’s probably too late.

“In a national campaign, what additional things are the headquarters really going to do to move resources?” he said. “Will an additional auto-call last minute really make a difference in a market like Northeast Ohio, which has been saturated for three months full of auto-calls?”

While some liberal blogs have worried that Project ORCA could be a voter suppression program, the training packet instructs volunteers not to “talk to or confront voters in any circumstances.” Centinello also repeatedly told volunteers listening on the training call to follow poll workers’ instructions on where to stand and what the rules are in that location.

But Daniel Tokaji, an expert on election law and voting rights at Mortiz College of Law in Ohio, flagged an issue in the “frequently asked questions” section of the training packet that could potentially confuse volunteers.

The answer to Question 13 — “Am I allowed to speak on my cell phone inside the polling place?” — states, “Yes you may be allowed to use the smart phone inside the polling place. Please follow your poll manager’s instructions.” That answer appears to have been swapped with the answer to Question 11 — “Am I allowed to use the smart phone app inside the polling place?” — which currently reads, “No, you are only allowed to speak on your phone outside the voting area.”

In many polling places, people are not allowed to speak on the phone, and on the call with volunteers, Centinello instructed them not to. They are, however, allowed to use the smartphone app, and the mix-up in the training packet may cause confusion.

In general, Tokaji said, the type of monitoring the Romney campaign is doing with Project ORCA — and that the Obama campaign will also no doubt be doing — should be encouraged.

“It’s a way of boosting turnout, if the parties are doing this and making sure all their people turn out,” he said.

The Obama campaign declined to comment on Project ORCA or whether it has a similar program in place, but a recent memo from the campaign said that in battleground states, it is “recruiting thousands of attorney volunteers to help recruit, train, educate, and observe at polling locations across the country.”

Vincent Harris, the founder and CEO of the conservative digital advertising and marketing firm Harris Media, said he wouldn’t doubt that the Obama campaign has something similar set up, since it has consistently been on the cutting edge of digital politics.

But he said that Project ORCA will nevertheless give the Romney team a “huge advantage.”

“They have so much data and it all is coming to a head on Election Day — six years of data-capture, six years of data-gathering, all culiminating on Election Day,” said Harris. “And this new tool is the key to using that data.”