Securing the Campaign 2: The Role of Technology in 2008 and 2012 Election Campaigns

What Ben Hagen covers here is the way technology impacted the last two US presidential campaigns, and also highlights the problems that occurred along the way.

Results of the 2008 election for Obama So, getting into the actual campaigns: 2008 – obviously, Obama won that. And he won it by pretty big margin; I’m not sure if everybody is familiar with the electoral system in the US, it’s pretty weird in that the popular vote doesn’t necessarily count for much. It’s the electoral votes that count for everything. Essentially, there’re 538 possible votes; you need to win a majority of those, meaning you need at least 270. If you reach that goal, then you would be elected as the next President. Obama, with 365, had a pretty clear majority in terms of electoral votes; he also won the popular vote (see image above).

That was a pretty big win, and technology played kind of a groundbreaking role in this election. This was the first time we saw a lot of donations happening online, we saw a lot of online communities spread up in support of the President. He had a pretty sophisticated homepage that allowed people to discuss and comment on different news articles and communicate that way.

They also had their share of security problems, and some of them weren’t very serious, but garnered really big headlines. And I think that leads to one of the problems that you have in political campaigns: no matter how small the problem is, it’s going to cause headlines everywhere.

News headline about cross-site scripting on Obama homepage Here is an example: there’s a cross-site scripting bug on the homepage of the 2008 campaign (see left-hand image). I wasn’t involved with this campaign, but I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people who were, and essentially somebody decided it would be a great idea to redirect everybody’s traffic from the Obama homepage to the Hillary Clinton page, and at the time they were kind of vying to see who would be the democratic candidate for that campaign.

So, pretty small, pretty normal, kind of run-of-the-mill cross-site scripting bug, stored cross-site scripting, that redirected people because of a bug in the commenting system, basically. And, you know, cross-site scripting happens every day, but you don’t really see headlines in major newspapers regarding those issues on normal websites. We did have more serious issues.

Campaigns for both candidates underwent pretty severe malware attacks So, both Obama, the Democratic representative, and McCain, the Republican representative in 2008 – after the election was over, it was revealed that both campaigns were compromised by some pretty sophisticated malware, and this was reported pretty widely just after the election (see left-hand image). But it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the election was now over, so you didn’t see any huge headlines about it. But essentially, both campaigns were targeted by spear phishing campaigns targeting campaign officials, and through the course of that, malware was installed on computers throughout the campaign, and they exfiltrated documents. We believe that the intent was to steal foreign policy or economic policy documents, but it’s kind of best guess as to who was behind it and what exactly they were after. So, I think that’s kind of on the more serious issues that you can have in the campaign.

Electoral and popular votes for Obama in the 2012 election Moving on to this most recent campaign, 2012, the one I actually helped with. Again, thankfully, Obama won 332 electoral votes, well above the 270 needed, but just barely winning the popular vote, with 50.96% (see right-hand image). It was a very contentious election; it was kind of up in the air for a very long time as to who was winning and how the election would turn out in the end.

I think this time around we kind of stepped up the technology game also, where we took what was done in 2008 and kind of did more of everything. We built a lot more applications; donations were a much bigger part of it, online communication was a much bigger part of it as well as advertising that whole thing.

The jump in social media and online donations in 2012 as compared with the 2008 campaign I think a really clear way to view that transition from ’08 to 2012 technology is to look at social media (see left-hand image). So, Facebook – obviously a huge jump in terms of followers: in 2008 the Barack Obama account had just over 2 million followers. That’s jumped up to 32 million, which is one of the biggest in terms of account followers on Facebook. Twitter, similarly – in 2008 it was just getting started, not a lot of people used twitter, had about 125 thousand followers, then, again, jumped up to over 22 million for this campaign. And these were the accounts that were used by the campaign to communicate with interested persons throughout the country.

Online donations in 2008 amounted to about 500 million; that jumped, again, in 2012 to 690 million, and that was a really big achievement, mostly because it was really questionable how people would approach Obama this time around. The country was in economic turmoil, lots of people were unemployed, it was really hard to know how things would turn out. Total donations in the 2012 campaign exceeded 1 billion dollars, so that’s a lot of money. And that makes us a threat; or not, it makes threats a very big part of what we’re doing with technology.

Read previous: Securing the Campaign by Ben Hagen

Read next: Securing the Campaign 3: Types of Technological Threats Being Faced

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