Sen. Bernie Sanders had been having a lovely little week. He scored the endorsements of both the Communications Workers of America union and the progressive grass-roots group Democracy for America. On Thursday, his campaign announced that it had received more than 2 million donations. “We are enormously proud,” Sanders said in a statement, “that we have received more individual contributions at this point in the campaign than any candidate who is not an incumbent president.” The campaign said on Thursday that it had raised more than $3 million in contributions since Monday.
But by Friday morning, the Sanders campaign found itself locked out of the Democratic National Committee’s 50-state voter file and its own proprietary voter information that it maintains on the DNC’s platform.
The DNC suspended the campaign from access after a software glitch on the system, run by the vendor NGP VAN, broke down the “firewalls” between each campaign’s information and some number of Sanders campaign tech employees breached and downloaded some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s data. The Sanders campaign fired its national data director on the spot and is doing an internal investigation of its staffers’ activities. (Update, Dec. 19, 2015: Late Friday night, the DNC agreed to restore the Sanders campaign’s access to the voter file but will continue to investigate the data breach.)
The Sanders campaign is reacting to the DNC’s incredibly punitive response as another instance of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC treating all non-Clinton presidential campaigns unfairly and generally making a mess of the primary process. This shouldn’t excuse the members of the Sanders campaign who did, in fact, screw up. The campaign should come fully clean about what proprietary Clinton campaign information they do or don’t have.
But do they have a case that Wasserman Schultz’s DNC has generally facilitated the Clinton campaign throughout the cycle? Oh God, yes, and it’s no shock that the Sanders campaign and its supporters are treating this as a declaration of war.
Saturday night the Democrats will hold their third presidential debate. Saturday night is a night during which few people watch political television because they have plans to do actual fun things. It will be the Democrats’ second consecutive Saturday night debate, and it lands on the first Saturday night since either the Reagan or Carter administrations—depending on one’s tolerance for Ewoks—that a decent Star Wars flick has been playing in theaters.
It’s hard to see the sparse Democratic debate schedule as anything other than Wasserman Schultz protecting the interests of the Clinton campaign, which wants to eliminate the chance of its candidate getting roughed up ahead of the general election (or, you know, losing the nomination). When Wasserman Schultz’s vice chairs pointed out that this is stupid, they faced retribution.
Wasserman Schultz’s DNC, in another show of incompetence, maintains all of the party’s and campaigns’ voter information on the platform of an apparently inept technology company.
This is “not the first time” NGP VAN has allowed “serious failures to occur,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said at a press conference Friday afternoon.
“On more than one occasion they have dropped the firewall between the data of the competing Democratic campaigns. This is dangerous incompetence. It was our campaign months ago that alerted the DNC to the fact that the campaign data was being made available to other campaigns,” Weaver added, noting that they did not “run to the media”—wink wink, Clinton campaign.
Weaver said that “further disciplinary action may follow” if he finds that other staffers looked at or downloaded the Clinton campaign’s jewels. The already-fired Sanders tech staffer is saying that they went through the Clinton campaign’s data to provide evidence to the DNC and NGP VAN that they could do it and that fixes were needed. That sounds politically naive. It also sounds exactly how a lot of—how should we put this?—unpolished techies would think.
“The DNC has used this incident to shut down our ability to access our own information,” Weaver said, “information which is the lifeblood of this campaign.” He threatened to take his own political party to court and followed through late Friday afternoon.
Wasserman Schultz has responded precisely how the Sanders campaign would like the DNC to respond: by sounding like an enemy to the Sanders campaign. “I guess that the Sanders campaign unfortunately doesn’t have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there,” Wasserman Schultz said on CNN, “because what they are doing, what they have done, it’s like if you had, if you found the front door of the house unlocked and someone decided to go into the house and take things that didn’t belong to them, and then when they were caught, they still insisted on having access to the house.”
It’s more like the Sanders campaign just wants access back to its own house that has been seized by the authorities. If the DNC wants to sanction the Sanders campaign, there are other opportunities. Fine them. Threaten to invalidate delegates they would win until they provide a full report of the breach. Make Sanders wear a Donald Trump hat for several consecutive days. Or just let the Sanders campaign suffer the political consequences of the impropriety, and don’t get involved at all.
The appropriate reaction isn’t to take away the campaign’s property indefinitely. It causes real, hour-to-hour harm to the Sanders campaign, and it plays into the perception—or reality—that the DNC is an adjunct of the Clinton campaign.