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
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.