A Long Month, A Debate and ORCA: My Experience on the Romney Campaign

Mitt Romney speaks to staffers at HQ following election loss.

Mitt Romney speaks to staffers at HQ following election loss.

Over the last two months I had the fortune to work as an intern on the Romney campaign. After being accepted in mid-August, I flew to Boston the first of September and received a front row seat to the inner workings of a presidential campaign, and needless to say, it was an experience I will not soon forget.

I interned in the communications department, and during my time there I did various tasks leaning from the menial, transcribing, to more the more significant, managing the press line and inbox. For a journalism major, getting hands on experience dealing with the press was invaluable, and provided me with some very entertaining stories, not all of which are fit for publication.

I arrived during what had to be one of the worst months a campaign could experience. After Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention boosted President Obama’s poll numbers, the infamous “47%” video was soon released. Follow this up with articles on Politico and other websites about dysfunction at Romney headquarters and you can easily paint a picture of disarray and panic.

However, this was not the case. Aside from any stresses you would see at any normal 9-5 job, the events were handled pretty well. Everybody kept their calm in anticipation that the race would soon change heading into October.

And it did.

While it was well known that Mitt Romney had prepared more than any other candidate in recent memory for the debates, nobody has expected a performance like what was seen in Denver on October 3rd. Almost everybody at the campaign debate party were nearly as surprised as the public watching at home. The momentum from the first debate, at least for myself, acted as a catalyst for the month-long feeling that we would win heading into Election Day.

As October progressed, optimism was high and with reason: polls and the media showed the the race going in our favor. I felt that there was little to no chance of us losing. It was during this time period when I learned about the now infamous Project ORCA. (Humorously named after the giant whale due to it being the only thing larger than a narwhal, which the Obama campaign’s voter turnout project in 2008 was named.)

We were told about the project and what it entailed during a mid-October intern seminar. Informed that it was to be the nations largest exit poll, with results from over 23 million voters that would allow the campaign to know by noon of election day what the outcome would look like, enthusiasm was higher than ever and each intern left the meeting excited to work on the project.

The majority of my final two weeks there, as well as the whole of the political department, were spent on ORCA. Each night and often early into the morning, planning and meetings detailing various aspects of the project were discussed and worked over. During these final days, sleep was a rarity as during the day I would fill my obligations to the communications department, then once finished there at 6 p.m. I would continue with ORCA.

Before I knew it, Election Day was nearing. On November 5th, the day before the Election, we began to set up the TD Garden, which had been rented out by the campaign as the “War Room” for operations. The next 48 hours were a whirlwind. On Monday, I alternated between preparing in the Garden and helping out at the Boston Convention Center, where the Election Night party was to be held. To get to see the setup and various global media come in was yet another behind the scenes experience that made working this campaign a memorable time.

The jumbotron at TD Garden, where Project ORCA was hosted on Election Day.

The jumbotron at TD Garden, where Project ORCA was hosted on Election Day.

Throughout the night preparations continued. As technical aspects were being finalized, some went back to get a short amount of sleep while others continued to get ready for the 800 volunteers who would begin to arrive at 4 a.m. These volunteers would comprise the task force to answer calls and assist the 34,000 OCRA volunteers who were at polling stations throughout the 11 swing states.

The volunteers poured in and took their seats at the various “pods” set up for each state. (In total there were 12 pods, one for each swing state, with sizes varying from less than 20 people at the smallest, New Hampshire, to nearly 200 in the Ohio and Florida sections.) I was deputy state leader for Pennsylvania, a pod with approximately 40 people. Once the morning progressed and volunteers began phoning in with various issues, the pace quickly picked up. Each pod had it’s own lawyer to handle legal issues such as broken polling machines, being turned away from polls, etc. These problems were frequent throughout the early morning and began to subside around 9:00 a.m..

However, new problems would soon arise, a map that was supposed to project the swing states in coordination with how we were doing in voter turnout never appeared on the jumbotron . Furthermore, the number of calls regarding the app and phone system crashing grew as the afternoon began. As we tried to keep volunteers calm over the phone it was becoming obvious something was amiss with the system and as the evening came closer the problem still had not been fixed.

Around 7 p.m., as the first polls closed, those in charge of the project began handing out paper slips for volunteers to write the results of each county in their state. At this point, many were frustrated at what seemed to be a waste of time and potential and I made my way over to the convention center for the election party.

Boston Convention Center, host of the election night party

Boston Convention Center, host of the election night party

When I arrived, somewhere near 10 p.m., many states had been called and the Electoral College count was Romney: 154, Obama: 123. However, the atmosphere at the party was somber, and as the western polls closed at 11pm, the feeling could be described as funeral like. I was optimistic still, figuring at that point there would be no clear winner, and as many pundits had predicted, the race would go into recount.

Shortly after 11 p.m., Ohio and the election were called for President Obama. Aside from Karl Rove’s hasty and incorrect assumption that Ohio was called too early, which gave the room a sudden boost of excitement and hope, the room was silent in anticipation of when Governor Romney would make his concession speech.

Around 1 a.m., the concession was made and the speech was given. The announcement was surreal, I cannot understate the profound feeling that we were going to win. I truly believe that not a person in the room or campaign felt this outcome was possible. Making it even more troubling was the fact not only did we lose, but went one for twelve in the swing states.

The next day, Romney came into the office to speak and thank all the people who helped the campaign. One of the more surprising aspects of the loss was how quickly a candidate goes from a national figure to a normal citizen. Hours after the loss, the losing candidate no longer has the privilege of secret service. Romney, instead of by motorcade, was driven to the office by his son, Tagg. Furthermore, it was surprising to see the headquarters begin to be cleaned out and packed away just hours after the election.

During my last days in Boston, I made sure to keep contacts with the people I had worked with, as I felt that, aside from all the interesting events, the most important thing I can take from the campaign were the people I had met.

Now, having been back in New Jersey for a couple of weeks, I have to say how comparable the campaign was to a normal office workplace as well as the the people who work there. While politics are certainly known as a cutthroat business, the Romney campaign was anything but. This campaign showed me that youth is at the heart of politics as well as the future of this nation, and that working for something you believe in is truly one of, if not the most, satisfying lines of work to be a part of. While I did not see the result I had hoped for, I gained something just as gratifying: connections and experience that would last far longer than the four years of a presidency.

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