By Matt Taylor
On Election Day 2012, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney — remember him? — had a secret weapon: “Orca,” a mobile tool intended to keep reports streaming into campaign headquarters in Boston as volunteers tracked polls in swing states. Not only did the technology bedevil users across the country, but volunteers reported confusion with the entire Election Day process. In Chicago, Obama for America staffers watched data come in through an application that its own vendors had built and first launched years before. The election-day disaster was the final injury for a campaign beset with digital missteps of varying degrees and that had struggled, in the few months after the Republican primary election, to build a technology operation that could rival what Obama for America had been testing and tweaking all year.
Even as Romney’s “Orca” was going belly-up on Election Day, another group of conservatives were enjoying the fruits of labor that began long before voters headed to the polls.
As the 2012 campaign began, American Majority Action, a conservative 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, invested in a new tool called “Political Gravity.” While roughly comparable to what Democrats made available to volunteers for their own field operations, Gravity was a novelty on the right: It was a mobile interface into voter data designed for grassroots advocates. An organization with a Gravity license could direct activists to the doors of specific voters, offer them a script of what to say on arrival, and give them the chance to record the results of that voter contact. A smattering of other right-wing groups, including FreedomWorks, enjoyed the benefits of this new tool. While its deployment was limited and it had its own share of bugs, the software is a sign that there’s still technological life among conservatives.
Gravity’s two critical components are route optimization, so canvassers’ time on foot (or in their cars) is used efficiently, and, as Orca intended, it allows users to transmit voter responses to survey questions back to a database in real time from the field. That removes the need for volunteers to wade through hundreds of walk sheets and tabulate responses by hand at campaign headquarters, where there is substantial margin for error (and precious time lost).
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