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Pyle: Count one for the reality-based community

Published November 23, 2012 11:44 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"It's arithmetic." — President Bill Clinton, speech at Democratic National Convention, Sept. 5, 2012

Well, more precisely, Mr. President, it's algorithms, memcache clusters and real-time data-mining and information-sharing run by a brilliant collection of bearded, T-shirted nerds who make the guys on "The Big Bang Theory" look like the Flintstones.

It was the Obama re-election campaign's Project Narwhal. As outlined (pre-election) on the Slate website and (post-victory) on The Atlantic's, it was as good an example as any of the difference this year between the winning Democratic campaign and the losing Republican one.

Actually, Narwhal sounds kind of scary. It used all kinds of data extraction and comparison tricks to figure out just which voters would respond to, for example, an email touting the Obama position on contraception and abortion, even as it stopped sending requests for contributions to individuals who had already donated the legal maximum. It sliced, diced and profiled millions of voters so extensively and, apparently, accurately, that it could have been something for the Mitt Romney campaign to use as a talking point against President Obama.

Imagine a TV spot, grainy film, ominous music, and a clearly frightened narrator warning voters of Team Obama's Big Brotherish, privacy-invading eye in the sky. Or at least in your inbox.

Except, of course, its hard to find a Republican who opposes electronic eavesdropping. And, of course, the Romney campaign had its own cyber-campaign killer app.

It was called Project ORCA, named for the kind of killer whale that eats narwhals, and was touted as Romney's own demographic lodestone that would get out the vote on Election Day, especially in crucial states such as Florida and Ohio.

Except, early on Election Day, ORCA crashed. In retrospect, it looks like it wouldn't have made any difference if it had worked, as the day people actually vote is waaaaay too late for such a psychohistory program to make any difference. And that set up the cascade of failure that ended in Karl Rove's but-these-numbers-can't-be-right China syndrome performance on FOX News.

According to my old mates at The Buffalo News, ORCA was not created by the kind of seasoned coding Gandalfs who post real-time public transit system information for Chicago commuters because somebody ought to. It was led by a college dropout from Western New York who apparently sold the Romney campaign a faith-based product.

Meanwhile, Rove wasn't the only pundit who didn't know what hit him. More independent conservatives, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, were predicting a Romney win based on their unsupported gut feelings that people were fed up with Obama's rising unemployment and iffy birth certificate.

Of course, both of those assumed facts were false. As were any assumptions that only the views of conservative white, climate-change-denying, capital-gains-tax-paying, won't-ever-be-accidentally-pregnant males would carry the day.

Which is why the recent election is being described, not as a victory for liberal ideology, but as the Triumph of the Reality-Based Community.

Here I hasten to reassure my fellow pundits that our role, arguing our positions on what policies are the most logical and moral, cannot be replaced by predictive number-crunchers. But the facts on which those arguments are based — such as, say, higher taxes on the rich do not impede economic growth — had better be based on reality.

And, next time, it could just as easily be the liberals who become the victims of their own untested delusions.

Like Bubba said, it's arithmetic.

George Pyle is reportedly an editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune. Verify him at gpyle@sltrib.com or via Facebook at facebook.com/stateofthedebate