A common assumption seems to be that meddling in US elections only began in 2016 or at most 2015. I don’t think that is true. I would say that the focus was only different and was probably directed at subverting the Republican candidates then: John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
My hunch why this question arouses so little interest is that, for those on the Left, it does not fit into a storyline where Putin acts out of a visceral hatred against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in general. It might also raise awkward question about whether Putin supported, if indirectly, Barack Obama.
The Right is paralyzed itself because any evidence there could have been Kremlin meddling already in the 2008 and 2012 elections would bolster the case that it also happened in 2016. And then Libertarians have mostly no incentive either because Ron Paul was viewed by many of them as their great hope, and it is always hard to admit you have been duped.
My point is not that there is some conspiracy here to avoid the issue. All you need is interlocking motivations that work in the same direction. So it is: I don’t look at your blind spot, you don’t look at mine, and we are all fine. James Kirchick and a few bloggers are the only people who have been on the story as far as I can see.
Let me note that my claim is speculative although I think there is enough evidence to make the case at least plausible. I have no idea whether there was coordination with the Ron Paul campaign. Given what has happened since then, my hunch is that I would not rule it out. But then I have no proof that could support such a conclusion, so I do not assume it.
I will now make the case that the Kremlin intervened in the Republican primaries for the 2008 elections and on behalf of Ron Paul. (I think that it also happened in 2011/12, and I have written a little about that in this post). Strange developments caught the attention of many people at the time, but noone connected the dots. What happened seemed inexplicable and there were benevolent interpretations, but in retrospect, I would say the fingerprints are all over the place. It seems like a test run for what happeed in 2015/2016.
What would be the goal? John McCain had a pretty hawkish stance on foreign policy and could have become a major problem for Putin. And he had a chance to win the nomination as was then the case. Ideally, the objective should hence have been to install a favorable candidate, and if that did not work out to lower the chances of John McCain in the general election. (I have written about the candidates I would have supported as Putin in this post.) Ron Paul with his isolationist views and intransigent approach would have been an ideal candidate here.
So far, this is a “cui bono” argument, which is at best a first idea, not a proof. That’s why I now take a closer look at what happened and put the different pieces together that remained disjointed at the time. Here is what I have found out, and I assume this is not all there is. I have done some research, but admittedly not a lot. My guess is that there is more to find.
Here are the main points that I will discuss more in detail below:
- A spam campaign and systematic manipulation of online polls, view counts on YouTube, etc. in support of Ron Paul.
- A corps of very aggressive pre-Pepe supporters who put pressure on publications via emails, flooded message boards as well as comments sections and generally pushed Ron Paul in many ways that now seem familiar after the 2015/2016 campaign.
- Massive inflows for a fringe campaign that came via “moneybombs,” mostly online donations that are exempt from records keeping requirements.
There were some events at the time that may or may not have a connection with what I describe below. I might be completely wrong about this, but at least they add information on the background:
(1) After the 2004 elections, the Russian government launched “Russia Today” in December 2005. Intitially it was supposed to “reflect Russia’s opinion of the world” and present a “more balanced picture.” Later, especially after a rebranding as “RT” in 2009, it developed into the aggressive propaganda outlet we know today.
RT certainly played a role in Ron Paul’s campaign in 2011/2012. I have not found anything, though, from 2008 or before that connects him to “Russia Today.” That may also have to do with sources disappearing from the Internet. My point here is only that the timing shows that Putin took an interest in reaching an international and especially American audience. Of course, the 2008 elections would be in view that were open while the 2004 elections were rather uneventful for Putin, perhaps with the exception of Howard Dean.
(2) Paul Manafort moved to Ukraine in 2005 to work for then Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych. Around the same time, he also began to work for the Russian governent. As AP reported:
Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse.
Manafort pitched the plans to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
Again, I would understand that the main focus for such a campaign should have been the 2008 elections. I have no information as to what Manafort did as a contractor, and I have found no evidence for a direct connection between him and Ron Paul. But then his long-time collaborator Roger Stone would later crop up in 2012 and offer his services to the campaign of the Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson (who was not endorsed by Ron Paul). The money quote is in this HuffPo piece:
“This is a warm-up race,” Stone said of 2012. “I have no allusions of him winning.”
With only such associations, I would not rule out a connection, but find that not plausible at first glance. Also that Ukraine plays a role below may have been accidental. But what it again shows is that Putin had the US on his radar and probably the 2008 elections in particular.
Spam from Ukraine
From October 27 to October 30, 2007, spam emails went out to more than 160 million addresses (many of which may have been dead). They promoted Ron Paul after a debate during the primaries with subject lines like (reference here):
- Ron Paul Wins GOP Debate!
- Ron Paul Eliminates the IRS!
- Ron Paul Stops Iraq War!
- Vote Ron Paul 2008!
- Iraq Scam Exposed, Ron Paul
- Government Wasteful Spending Eliminated By Ron Paul
This caused some commotion on websites covering the Internet (e.g. ZDnet, WIRED, etc.). There were accusations that the Ron Paul campaign used illegal tactics. They rejected this, and although I don’t know for sure, I find it plausible that they were not directly responsible. The backlash was pretty predictable. But then the spam still went to millions of people.
As it turned out a little later, the emails had come from the Srizbi botnet operating out of Ukraine, but with infected computers around the world. Those clumsily posed as being based in the US. The unknown person behind the botnet went by the pseudonym “nenastnyj” (Russian for: “rainy” or “inclement”), the coder for the malware called himself “vlaman,” and the head of the operation was one “SPM,” possibly Philipp Pogosov living in Thailand (see here for more information from 2012 about this.)
The botnet had not been used for political messaging so far, only for standard fare, like work-from-home or penis enlargement schemes as well as spam in Russian. (I rely here on a thorough analysis by Secureworks. ) The latter does not necessarily establish a connection with Russia proper because many Ukrainians speak Russian as a first or second language.
The operators of the botnet rented it out to others, which seems to have been rather cheap. So anyone with a small budget and knowledge about where to rent a botnet could have been behind it. Still we can conclude that they had (a) an interest in supporting Ron Paul in the primaries and (b) enough knowledge about the context to set up plausible spam messages. As noted above, all this does not establish a connection with Paul Manafort, but then he would also fit the profile, which is admittedly not very specific.
Magnifying Ron Paul’s Internet Presence
Another development during the primaries was that the little-known Ron Paul became an Internet phenomenon. That again aroused the interest of major media, which put him on the radar also of a broader audience. As a WIRED article from June 2007 reports:
According to Technorati, “Ron Paul” is one of the web’s most searched-for terms. News about Paul has an outsize presence on Digg and reddit, two sites that allow users to highlight their preferred content. Paul’s YouTube channel has been viewed over one million times, dwarfing efforts from competitors like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
During the 2004 election, a web-savvy campaign staff helped turn Howard Dean’s anti-war candidacy into the first online political phenomenon. But the Ron Paul frenzy seems to have sprung from the internet itself. Paul’s libertarian message — he is against big government, the war, and pretty much anything that costs taxpayers money — has attracted a group of anti-establishment, tech-savvy supporters who have taken everyone by surprise.
“The people who are actually working for the campaign are a little overwhelmed with what’s happening,” says Alex Wallenwein, a supporter who organized two of the 362 Meetup.com groups dedicated to Paul.
Many users of Digg and reddit are perplexed to see story after story about Paul topping lists of the most popular news. Critics say Paul supporters disregard the spirit of these social content sites by posting messages on blogs that encourage readers to go to Digg or reddit and vote for every story about Paul.
Obviously, noone at the time could think of who might also help with such astroturfing. It was taken as a sign of grassroots that had until then escaped everybody. And this impression then really created traction. While he was polling in the lower single digits in regular polls, Ron Paul seemed to be very popular online (same source):
Matt Margolis runs GOP Straw Polls, a popular series of monthly surveys that are posted on numerous blogs in an attempt to gauge how much support candidates have throughout the conservative blogosphere. Margolis originally didn’t include Paul in the polls but added his name when his fan base began to grow. Paul now dominates the polls, winning nearly half of all ballots cast in the most recent survey.
Some suspected more sophisticated manipulation than Margolis who thought it were enthusiastic supporters:
Many bloggers have expressed concern that Paul’s massive online vote totals could only be accomplished through the use of bots that automatically send hundreds of votes. While no one has presented evidence to prove this, several blogs have removed Paul’s name from their polls. Not surprisingly, Paul fans have responded with streams of angry e-mails.
At the time, it was only a suspicion, but a few years later it was clear that something like that happened on Reddit where comments critical of Ron Paul were systematically voted down. (See this article in Daily Dot from 2012.)
Bring In the Trolls
Another aspect of Ron Paul’s online presence was the type of supporters he seemed to have. Erick Erickson made the decision to exclude the “retarded vulture fringe” from the forums at Redstate. In a WIRED article he explained:
… let’s be clear, there are a lot of decent Ron Paul supporters who are welcome here. But we’ve been overrun by the retarded vulture fringe who just drop by to yell about the Zionist Conspiracy to shut Ron Paul out. And I make no exaggeration in saying that. Today, I got my favorite piece of email so far. It said “I smell Hebrews.” That sums up the sentiment of the folks we’ve tossed.
But there was also bafflement about who these people were (same source):
[David] All and Erickson’s fundamental disagreement is over who Paul’s supporters really are. The answer seems to be that they’re a wide conglomeration of independent-spirited characters who can’t be categorized. (Apart from being libertarian.)
Erickson thinks that they’re a human political cocktail of Code Pink activists and Neo Nazis, and he doesn’t expect them to vote for anyone other than Paul.
All thinks that a lot of them are those who buy into Paul’s message of limited government and fiscal responsibility.
But then there is a dead giveaway in the above email. I assume no American would write about “Hebrews” when they mean Jews. However, that is a natural mistake for someone whose native language is Russian because “Евреи” is literally “Hebrews.”
I also noticed the same type of aggressive supporters for Ron Paul during the campaign in 2011/2012 (I did not follow the elections in 2008 closely at the time). One major goal seemed to be to shout libertarians down who were opposed to Ron Paul. Already in 2007/2008, this made its first appearance with the opposition between “paleotarians” (Ron Paul supporters) and “cosmotarians” (libertarians that would now be called “globalists”).
Also other people were annoyed because this behavior was ubiquitous all over the political Internet. Here are excerpts from a take on HuffPo from 2007:
And it’s the way they keep telling the same story over and over that’s driving everyone else over the edge. Red State isn’t the only blog that has been frequented, well, frequently, by the Ron Paul supporters. Editors of newspapers and other major blogs have received more than their share of emails demanding more Ron Paul coverage.
And again from the article in WIRED above:
To many immersed in the political blogosphere, Paul’s passionate supporters seem to be everywhere at once. Editors of political websites are inundated with angry e-mails demanding they devote more coverage to Paul. Blog posts that criticize Paul are often followed by hundreds of livid comments from his fans.
One notable phenomenon during the primaries for the 2008 elections was the astonishing ability of the Ron Paul campaign to obtain donations, especially online. That caught also the attention of major media and reinforced a storyline of how Ron Paul had an enthusiastic following.
One point to know in this regard is that individuals are basically exempt from campaign finance rules, especially regarding reporting. That was clarified by the FEC in 2006 (updated in 2007):
An uncompensated individual or group of individuals may engage in Internet activities for the purpose of influencing a federal election without restriction. The activity would not result in a “contribution” or an “expenditure” under the Act, and would not trigger any registration or reporting requirements with the FEC. This exemption applies to individuals acting with or without the knowledge or consent of a campaign or a political party committee.
And that’s how the “moneybombs” came about. As one organizer explained to Politico:
“There’s no officialness about it in any sense. It’s just a website that said ‘hey let’s all donate money on this day,’” Lyman said. “And once the banners were in place and people could start spreading links, it just propagated virally. And that’s really it.”
Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton said the campaign did not coordinate with Lyman but was aware of his efforts, which Paul piggybacked on as Nov. 5 approached.
Jesse Benton, husband to one of Ron Paul’s granddaughters, is no stranger to dubious campaign tactics. As per Wikipedia and sources there:
In August 2012, conservative activist and former fired 2008 Ron Paul staffer Dennis Fusaro released emails and phone conversations that implicated Benton in being involved in an attempt to bribe Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson in order to secure Sorenson’s support of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Sorenson initially supported Michele Bachmann’s candidacy, but switched his support to Paul, prompting Bachmann to accuse the Paul campaign of buying Sorenson. Sorenson resigned after a special investigator found it “manifestly clear” he violated Iowa Senate ethics rules by accepting money and then denying he’d done so.
This resulted in an indictment and then a conviction in 2016 (same source and references there):
On May 5, 2016, a federal jury in Des Moines found Benton guilty of four federal crimes: conspiracy, causing false records, causing false campaign expenditure reports and making false statements. No charges of bribery were ever even brought up.
But back to the “moneybombs:” They brought unheard amounts in within a short time (references here):
- $4.2 million on November 5, 2007
- $6.0 to $6.6 million on December 16, 2007
The latter beat efforts from all other candidates apart from perhaps Hillary Clinton who could attract donations of $6.2 million on June 30, 2007. And later Bernie Sanders would be able to collect over the two days from February 9 to 10, 2016 a sum of $6.4 million, and Donald Trump $18 million again over two days from September 26 to 27, 2016.
All in all, the Ron Paul campaign received $16 million in the last quarter of 2007. Curiously, the feat could not be replicated in the campaign 2011/12. Now, I have no idea how you could manipulate this, and the first assumption has to be that everything was fine. But then my reaction is: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Here is my stab at how you could do it. If you have to do no reporting, then someone can send you the whole amount or bring it to you in a suitcase. This does not preclude that part of the sum is really being raised from small donors. And why could they not be from abroad?
If you have to do reporting, you need a list of names with credit card numbers, and that’s what you report then. Only if someone checked whether the supposed transactions really went through would you have a problem. But then the loophole was created to encourage small donations. My guess is that not a lot of scrutiny goes into this.
I make no claim that anything of this kind happened. But then here is what looks fishy to me: Ron Paul remained in the primaries until the bitter end when he lost the nomination on June 12, 2008, ie. he was in all primaries. He could get a total of only 1,160,403 votes, though. Receipts were for $28.1 million. As per Wikipedia and sources there:
Now, if the average was $100 per donor, then that would translate to 281,000 people. Of course, with a higher average, the figure would be lower. But in any event, this seems like an astonishing market penetration to me.
There are quite a few things that were at least strange about Ron Paul’s campaign in 2007/2008. People at the time were astonished by what happened, and sometimes also annoyed. In general, there was a benevolent interpretation that it was the result of a grassroots movement that everybody had missed. There were also explanations that Ron Paul’s “tech-savvy” supporters were just a bit too enthusiastic.
But with the hindsight after the 2016 election, also a different take is possible: Ron Paul was supported by the Kremlin. The phenomena seem so familar now: An outsized Internet presence for a no-name candidate with techniques that went from the obnoxious to the fraudulent to the illegal, aggressive hordes of pre-Pepe trolls, and financial inflows that stagger belief. And then there are even some indications that point to a connection to the former Soviet Union.
As I have noted above, “cui bono” alone is a weak argument, at most a first idea. The timing for the launch of “Russia Today” and even more so hiring Paul Manafort to influence American politics, however, support the conclusion that Putin had an interest in the 2008 elections. And then in my view, what happened is exactly what I would expect from an Kremlin influence campaign on Ron Paul’s behalf.
Ron Paul was a long-shot, but even if he lost, he could be useful as a spoiler for a mainline Republican candidate. And he was very consistent here: He remained in the race until the end, then shunned the Republican National Convention and held his own protest convention. Ron Paul did not endorse John McCain either. Instead, he first came out in support of all four “major” third party candidates (Chuck Baldwin, Bob Barr, Cynthia McKinney, and Ralph Nader). Eventually, he changed that and endorsed Baldwin from the Constitution Party.
So arguably, Ron Paul tilted the scales against John McCain by about a million votes. The election was not that close because Obama won with 52.9% to 45.7% for John McCain or by almost 10 million votes. However, in a closer race, Ron Paul could have made the difference.