Romney’s White Whale: Old Man’s IT and the Election That Got Away

Moby Dick

[Illustration from Moby Dick, c. 1925 edition]

ArsTechnica did a comparison between Mitt Romney’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns’ information technology expenditures. They note a few key attributes that differentiate the Romney campaign’s use of IT:

  • Outsource anything that’s not a key competency, and spend as little as possible on it;
  • Reward “friends” with outsourcing contracts;
  • Spend on ad hoc items and pre-built SaaS* (buy from “friends” where possible).

Sure looks like the typical modus operandi of vulture capitalists that don’t invest but hit-and-run on the high seas, looking to harpoon anything of value in order to flay its carcass for cash. This says something both familiar and abhorrent about Mitt Romney and his supporters with regard to democracy.

But there are several other points that ArsTechnica missed in their assessment.

Generational shift — The difference in funds allocated and the way in which the IT monies were spent revealed a compelling truth: old guy Romney doesn’t value information technology the way younger guy Obama does. It’s a generational shift, from old school campaigns which still rely heavily on direct mail and broadcast media, to digital campaigns run by Gen-X and Millennials who are digital natives.

Based on past performance by vendors and team members alike, Obama’s team also trusts the technology team it assembled to do work quickly, effectively, on the fly. They trusted technology.

In contrast, Romney’s camp went with bigger brand name vendors like Best Buy (via service subsidiary) and SalesForce (for customer relationship management SaaS app). In mega-corporate they trust, apparently.

IT effectiveness opaque to outsiders — What exactly was the Romney team’s ORCA application? ArsTechnica notes the lack of disclosure, but doesn’t really ask a key question: what were all of ORCA’s deliverables? It sure wasn’t a GOTV application based on what the public could see. It looked more like a GMSV (giant money-sucking vortex) and nobody from Team Romney wants to talk, while rejecting any claims that ORCA was a fail whale. We’ll likely never know what the problems were with ORCA and what positive/negative impact it had on the campaign unless insiders leak about the application.

“Friends” made less visible IT contributions — Although some Obama supporters provided their own IT firepower to boost support through their own independent effort, the Romney camp received far more IT help in tandem through super PACs. The pro-Romney/anti-Obama digital campaign purchased by these super PAC “friends” was far larger than the Romney campaign’s IT component.

And of course, IT spending by these groups can be a black hole since donors’ identities need not be disclosed. How does the public know with absolute certainty what was donated if full disclosure isn’t required? Under current campaign finance laws we can’t be absolutely certain if donors provided cash, or a donation-in-kind, or both; there’s an inadequate amount of information reported providing a solid audit trail to assure the public that donations of any kind have been fully revealed. Ditto for privately-held corporations like those owned by the Koch brothers whose financial records are confidential; what was their contribution to these super PACs?

Yet firms with the biggest IT spending in the world are required to be more transparent, due to their status as publicly-held entities. Funny how we expect our search engines and booksellers to be more upfront with their digital technology expenditures than a campaign that sought control of our federal government.

* SaaS = Software as a Service — buy-as-you-use hosted applications, versus packaged applications or developed/customized to order hosted applications.

21 replies
  1. marksb says:

    Thanks Rayne.
    Another problem is that it sounds like Romney’s campaign ran their IT with a broken process, from what you describe as IT help from the superPACs.

    One can certainly run a big IT development and operation by outsourcing, but you better have project description to the level of fine details, and you better be able to hold the team to those details. You can run an Agile development process (which is what Obama’s team sounds like they were doing) but you have to have constant rigorous testing as modules are brought on-line. You can’t wait until the night of the election to turn it on and run it. And you better employ some geeks who can comb through the system and make sure there are no back doors allowing unauthorized access. I know the Anon hacking story is CT at this point, but I believe them when they say that the ORCA was vulnerable, as it fits what I can read about the development process–big, slow, using purchased services to develop the code, and without a dynamic testing structure throughout the process.

  2. marksb says:

    @ex-PFC Chuck: For a fun time, go over to Dailykos and look at the thousands of posts over the weekend about this issue, if it’s conspiracy theory or not, if people should be banned for posting about it, and why Anon hasn’t posted any evidence–code or logs–or turned their findings over to the FBI.

    But it’s SO interesting to read and think about. Personally, if it turned out to be true I would not be surprised at all. Either about the fraudulent intent or about the totally shitty way it was implemented.

  3. qweryous says:

    I don’t have time right now to get into the Orca app. The VP announcement does to some extent illustrate what the Romney Campaign was doing.

    The following link reports on a startup called Blush Box and it’s connection to the Romney IT clown posse. Warning link may be NSFW due to words and phrases such as “$400 Toy, Lingerie Subscription Service launches(!)”, “Sex in a Box”, “porn”,”50 Shades of Gray”, “silk blindfolds, whips and fancy dildos and plugs”, and so on. In the interests of explaining the ‘Selling of Mitt’ and how they tried to get it done, I have decided to post the link anyway. The story of the Orca app is more or less or less similar to the source of Romney Campaign’s app for the VP announcement.

  4. Rayne says:

    @greengiant: Yeah. After reading that, any sane person would come away asking what the feck ORCA was really supposed to do since it didn’t look at all like it would GOTV. Hence my question: what were all of ORCA’s deliverables?

    @JTMinIA: Edited, though you’ll note the Wikipedia link spells it with one n. (And while Wikipedia isn’t the final arbiter, neither is Wired.)

    @ex-PFC Chuck: I’ve heard/read the rumors, but I don’t have enough concrete facts to chase that. On the face of it ORCA didn’t deliver that which it was alleged to provide–and that’s pretty bad as it is. Absolutely blows my mind that conservatives in this country–the pro-business people especially–would give this incompetent team of hacks their vote and control of their government.

    @marksb: Key word: project. This was a project that appeared to have no project management at the helm. This same project has been run successfully cycle after cycle and yet this particular campaign felt it did not have to rely on what worked in the past, or use solid, proven project management skills to control both new and old elements.

    If a business wants to successfully integrate outsourced new components with older components to achieve a particular goal, they certainly don’t throw money at contractors and walk away. Cannot believe Team Romney did just this, though.

  5. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    If I were Anonymous I wouldn’t give out any more detail than they did. Why help them find their vulnerabilities? If the Rovians did indeed target three states just mentioning that fact is more than enough to let them know they were hacked.

  6. Rayne says:

    @ex-PFC Chuck: I agree, it’s not Anonymous’ role to outline vulnerabilities. On the other hand, if the Secretary of States in these key states are corrupt and part of the problem, and there is an insufficiency of evidence for Dept. of Justice to step in and investigate, what are the alternatives?

    Let’s also ask ourselves if as a democracy we should be relying on Anonymous to ensure the safety of our elections. The people should be demanding greater transparency so they can oversee their democracy, but without evidence, they may never really grok the threat.


  7. P J Evans says:

    I don’t think Anonymous needed to hack Orca. From what I read by one of the people who was supposed to use it, there was no training, they didn’t get instructions until the day before the election, and it was so slow (or so overloaded) that it was useless.

  8. greengiant says:

    @Rayne: Guessing that hedge funds make their money at the point where they make the deal, they rarely make money on execution. The modern business plan also maximizes outsourcing. In this case the ORCA GOTF cover story sourced to buds in Boston may have been a fail from the getgo.

  9. Rayne says:

    @P J Evans: But ORCA didn’t need to be hacked if it was merely a GOTV operation. Based on the description from the link greengiant provided above, ORCA was perceived by the GOP local activist to be a database that pushed out lists. That’s hardly hack-worthy, no point in it since much of the data could even be gleaned from public voting records.

    BUT…if ORCA encompassed a broader set of deliverables apart from a voter activation database for GOTV, there may have been something hack-worthy. This remains the question: what were ALL of ORCA’s deliverables?

    If ORCA wasn’t really intended to be an effective GOTV tool and had other less obvious deliverables, the failure of the campaign to ensure local activists had digital and/or print copies 3-7 days before the election makes more sense.

    @greengiant: Need to set aside the hedge fund business model, because it may not have been the model on which this campaign worked. With regard to office operations, they did run it like any of their vulture capital businesses. But with regard to to some of the outsourcing to “friends,” think about money laundering instead…there may be a transfer of capital, not necessarily an acquisition of services/goods.

    @Valley Girl: Yeah, I’ve heard/read most of that. Again, I don’t have enough evidence to weigh in on the voter fraud/vote manipulation. I only have unanswered questions that look fishy on their own.

    There’s one way to fix this mess, besides reverting to old school paper ballots and manual tabulation. That’s open source software in all voting systems and complete transparency.

  10. orionATL says:

    speaking as an old codger, you can only guess how much it hurts to say of grampa wibur’s marvelous, non-flying machine, even for the sake of humour:

    “orca is your grandfather’s oldsIT program”.

  11. Rayne says:

    @orionATL: LOL Not all of us are young whippersnappers. I’m older than Obama and younger than Grampa Mittens, and I think Gramps should probably have his driving privileges reviewed. Clearly his decision-making is impaired. If my spouse ran a business the way Mittens’ campaign was run, I’d have to have the man declared incompetent and put him in a home.

  12. Tom in AZ says:

    I don’t know if Anon is true, but Thom Hartmann and his partner have at least two really thought provoking posts on it at Truthout. On my phone, so can’t link’em, but worth a look.

  13. Rayne says:

    @Tom in AZ: Thanks, Tom, I’ll take a peek over there some time today.

    EDIT — 1:50 PM EST —

    Okay, read both pieces at Truthout. The most recent is more of an op-ed; while I understand the deliberate effort to create parallel construction throughout the article, there’s an imprecision that turns me off.

    That said, the earlier piece relying on more reported content is much better. There’s still not enough detailed content, but that which is presented deserves more attention. I believe Anonymous should present what they have, but 1) they should do so by providing it to all major news outlets, and 2) they need to provide material of a nature that is incontrovertible for news reporting, enough to trigger investigation by law enforcement. (My standard was min 2 sources, at least one on record, and sources should not be impeachable in court. I’d spike a story that didn’t adhere to this standard.)

    Anon knows that Wikileaks has been marginalized; the only way they can assure the public understands the magnitude of the alleged problem is to get it to media outlets that haven’t been co-opted as well as those that have. The former will report and shame the latter into follow-up.

    What’s very important to note in the wake of the election and Anonymous’ comments to Rove: the dog isn’t barking. Why?

    Why is Karl Rove not outraged over the fact that a cyber-insurgency group claimed to have hacked the election network? Why aren’t other conservatives–whether pundits or electeds or candidates–not screaming in the media for an investigation?

    Yeah. That.

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