“Heavy-handed … unprecedented”
“Stolen by the DNC”
“Taking our campaign hostage”
Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, pulled absolutely no punches throughout Friday in responding to the DNC’s actions to shut down the Sanders’ campaign access to VAN, the campaign’s main voter file. It was the culmination of months of frustration with the DNC, which the Sanders campaign and many others see as being biased toward Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Some of it was certainly justified, but what was notably lacking in most of the Sanders campaign’s response was any sense of contrition.
Their national data director (not, as they tried to play it off earlier, a “low-level” staffer) took advantage of a breach in the VAN’s firewall to access sensitive and valuable proprietary data from the Clinton campaign. While the Sanders campaign called this act “unacceptable” and quickly fired the staffer, they also consistently framed it in a larger complaint against the DNC and the VAN.
Then, in what is perhaps the most irresponsible fundraising email I’ve ever seen, the Sanders campaign actually tried to raise money off it. And that’s where this went from an embarrassing press day for Democrats to a seriously dangerous moment for the Democratic Party’s chances in 2016.
In an email entitled “Urgent: DNC tipping the scales for Hillary Clinton,” the Sanders campaign accused the DNC of trying to “undermine” their campaign by shutting down their database access. They framed the situation as being caused by “a fault in [the DNC’s] own technology platforms.” At absolutely no point in the email did they mention in any way that one of their top staffers improperly accessed Clinton data and was fired for it.
In fact, they tried to pass themselves off as the heroes of this situation in their press conference and press release. The Sanders campaign discovered a glitch in the VAN’s software back in October, they say, and brought it to the attention of the DNC then. They were being punished when they were the ones who found the problem, a line their die-hard supporters repeated non-stop throughout the day.
Just one problem: NGP VAN says they were never alerted to such a problem, and in interviews on Friday afternoon, the former Sanders data director, Josh Uretsky, says the glitch being referred to wasn’t even with the VAN. It was a different program. So not only did the Sanders campaign commit a lie of omission in their fundraising email, it appears they outright lied about the earlier problem to the press. Or, at the very least, this was yet another instance where many people inside the Sanders campaign don’t seem to be on the same page. [Update: However, Wasserman Schultz seemed to indicate in an interview in CNN last night that they did know about the October issue, and seems to imply it was with the VAN. I’ll check to see if this is really the case, or if she didn’t understand which database she was talking about. Update 2: I’ve confirmed the October issue was not the VAN]
And even if that was the case, that still in no way excuses their staff accessing the Clinton data. If anything, it makes it worse. If they knew that VAN occasionally drops the firewall, they should have had procedures in place to immediately contact VAN to make sure the Clinton campaign couldn’t see their data.
And while the DNC’s VAN shut-off was a very drastic move that essentially froze the Sanders campaign, there was a legitimate, serious concern that top Sanders staffers were trying to steal important Clinton data. Uretsky claimed in several media interviews that he was only trying to document the problem for VAN, another line that Sanders backers quickly picked up to use in their defense (and seem to ignore the fact that he was fired). But looking at the VAN audit that was provided to Starting Line and other news outlets, it’s clear that was not the case.
I’ve worked with the VAN since 2003, back since its very early years in Iowa. But you don’t even need that much experience to realize that the searches Uretsky and his deputy were conducting were designed to ascertain specific modeling and targeting data from the Clinton campaign. Running multiple searches for 40 minutes of Clinton turnout and persuasion scores in key early states is an obvious attempt to glean valuable data from your rival.
Here are the actions in the VAN the 4 Sanders users took with the Hillary data pic.twitter.com/SiMLI44bmg
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) December 19, 2015
It does not appear they were able to export any of these lists, but serious damage was still done. Just knowing the size of these potential universes is critical knowledge. Running lists of turnout scores can tell you how many people the Clinton campaign believes will turn out to caucus. Querying their persuasion scores can get you a rough estimate of how many supporters they think they have in a state. That’s extremely valuable information the Sanders campaign may now have.
Could there have been better communication between the DNC and the Sanders campaign? It sure looks like it. Could the DNC have held a behind-the-scenes discussion with Sanders staff to resolve the issue better? Probably, and it looked like the Sanders lawsuit had real merit in that they were supposed to have been given time to correct any improprieties. A lot of this is a result of poor management of the Democratic primary on Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s part, something which I’ve criticized her repeatedly this year for.
But looking at the larger, long-term picture, the way the Sanders campaign spun this ordeal for their supporters was incredibly irresponsible and downright dangerous for the party. Trying to convince your supporters the DNC took your data “hostage” simply because they don’t like you is utterly insane and disingenuous. The Sanders campaign committed real, serious transgressions. Their data director attempting to steal data worth millions of dollars from their rival’s campaign was an unprecedented attempt of campaign theft at the highest level. To think there would be no consequences is ridiculous. And using a defense that turns out to apparently not even be accurate shows their campaign doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in their own headquarters.
This all is actually more dangerous than hitting Clinton for more centrist views in the past or for her ties to Wall Street money. The Sanders coalition is made up of people who are frustrated with “politics as usual.” Convincing them the game is rigged is much more likely to depress Sanders supporters’ turnout in the general when/if Clinton is the nominee than any attack on Clinton’s slow decision to oppose the Keystone Pipeline ever would be.
They are certainly correct that the DNC has acted favorably toward Clinton. The debate schedule is ridiculous and cynical. Wasserman Shultz needlessly antagonizes in these types of situations in her media appearances. But the Sanders campaign has acted no better and now risks turning their political revolution into a group of angry voters who sit out the 2016 election.
Look, Bernie Sanders is a great Senator, lifelong progressive and champion for many issues ignored by the party and mainstream media. He has accomplished tremendous things this year for Democrats and political activism in general. Economic inequality and Wall Street reform has returned to a place of prominence in the party, ensuring more finally gets accomplished on those fronts. The excitement he generates in young people is inspiring.
His campaign does not live up to his example or stature. If there’s another point Sanders supporters should be frustrated with, it’s that their candidate’s message and candidacy is being undermined by a dysfunctional campaign.
by Pat Rynard