POLITICS
11/16/2012 01:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2015

The Tech Battle Between The Obama And Romney Campaigns And The Overconfidence Gap

If you haven't yet gotten your fill of stories about the technologists who formed the backbone of President Barack Obama's reelection efforts, then definitely check out Alexis Madrigal's story of the people behind Narwhal, the "data platform that underpinned the [Obama] campaign and let it track voters and volunteers." Jay Rosen, who highlighted the story on Twitter, serves it up noting that the "contrast with Project Orca" -- referring to the game day get-out-the-vote app of Mitt Romney's campaign -- "is just so extreme."

I'd go even further and say that the biggest contrast revealed in Madrigal's piece isn't just that one technological initiative is several quantum steps beyond the other. Madrigal helps to tell the story (or really, he ties it up with an excellent bow) of how each campaign prepared for victory, and why the Romney campaign's preparations didn't measure up. Madrigal sets up the revelatory parts of the story by first providing a retelling of the Obama campaign's disastrous Election Day, when the Narwhal engineers had to deal with multiple unfolding accidents at the worst possible time. Of course, there's a fun little catch:

They'd been working 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, trying to reelect the president, and now everything had been broken at just the wrong time. It was like someone had written a Murphy's Law algorithm and deployed it at scale.

And that was the point. "Game day" was October 21. The election was still 17 days away, and this was a live action role playing (LARPing!) exercise that the campaign's chief technology officer, Harper Reed, was inflicting on his team. "We worked through every possible disaster situation," Reed said. "We did three actual all-day sessions of destroying everything we had built."

Everything we've been told about the Romney campaign in the wake of its loss dials back to a common story: they all thought they had the election in the bag, based upon certain anecdotal evidence (lots of people came to their rallies!), and they were quite shocked and blindsided when it turned out that they weren't going to win. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign went into Election Day quite certain that any number of things could go terribly wrong and cost them the election. There's your contrast right there: a serious overconfidence gap that infected the wiring in Romney's operation.

According to Madrigal, the Romney team named its project "Orca" because the killer whale is the "only known predator of the one-tusked narwhal." But as it turned out, it was Narwhal that whaled on Orca until it was killed. For the complete story of the sort of people who you'd want in your "victory lab," you got to go read the whole thing.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
When the Nerds Go Marching In [The Atlantic]

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