Playing the Right Game

I confess, it is fascinating to watch the Republican consultants responsible for the Orca system debacle try and explain its inherent short comings away.

Let’s begin with the first problem they face. They put an untested piece of technology in the field the day of the election. Let me repeat that-they put an untested piece of technology in the field the day of the election.

You might do that if you wanted to fail a junior high science experiment, but not a Presidential election. Technology is a wonderful thing. And it is buggy. A small piece of code here or there can cause an entire system to either slow down or crash. And yet the Romney campaign and the RNC committed to funneling all of its volunteers, upwards of 30,000, into it for election day.

That was their first problem. The second is the failure of the Orca system is not that it crashed. The failure of the Orca system is that even if it had worked flawlessly, it still would have failed because it was built on the wrong model. The plan was to have volunteers check off voters who had voted and then have those who had not voted be called by other volunteers manning phone banks.

This clearly was a system conceptualized by folks who have either not done grassroots/GOTV work or are so far removed from it, they wouldn’t know that on the last week of an election that no one answers their landlines anymore  because they are burned out by all the calls, live or robo, that they have received.

You will only get voters over the last weekend of an election through door to door work.

This was the essence of the 2001 Yale study published in The Journal of Politics in November of 2003. In a study researching the affects of door to door canvassing, the Yale researchers discovered two things. Every successful contact with a voter face to face increased that individual’s probability of voting by 7% and 12 successful contacts with an individual translated into that individual voting for your candidate. That’s very simple election math and the basis for a much larger model that works.

You know what else the Yale study showed? That at $10 an hour, a paid canvasser could make 8 contacts per hour. Therefore the cost per vote was $15. Now, the math on that number has risen since 2001, but for the sake of this post, let’s assume that math would have worked this election. As Sean Davis and I wrote last week in our Dear Consultants: In Close Elections, GOTV Matters post, Romney lost the election by a combined total of 366,000 votes in Florida, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. At $15 a vote that’s $5.5M.

So it’s not a matter of “fixing” or making the Orca system “better.”

What we should be talking about is shelving it (and the team behind it) and moving to the correct model because no matter how hard you play the wrong game, you’re still going to lose.

We need to start playing the right game. The right game is swearing off TV ads and a ground game that starts after Labor Day. The right game is one that starts in January of 2013 with the funding to microtarget, through door to door work, the voters needed to win in 2014 and 2016.

As I pointed out to a friend the other day, the effectiveness of the Obama ground game is that when the election season started post-Labor Day, they were sitting on years of data and voter ID work. Which means they got the ball on the Romney campaign’s 20 yard line. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, fooled itself into thinking they were already in the Obama team’s red zone. They weren’t. They were starting at their own 20 yard line against one of the best defenses in the league.

If the Republicans want to win going forward, it is going to be contingent upon changing its tactical paradigm. It can be done. Will it be done remains the looming question.

 This post was co-written with Sean Davis, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.


Get Alerts