The dispute came after members of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ data team were found to have gotten access to, searched and stored proprietary information from Hillary Clinton’s team during a software glitch involving an important voter database.
A fight between the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Democratic leadership went public Friday as the party punished the campaign over a data breach and the Sanders camp sued the party and accused it of actively trying to help Hillary Clinton.
The dispute came after members of Sanders’ data team were found to have gotten access to, searched and stored proprietary information from Clinton’s team during a software glitch involving an important voter database. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) acted swiftly to deny the Sanders campaign future access to the party’s 50-state voter file, which contains information about millions of Democrats and is invaluable to campaigns on a daily basis.
Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, accused the party committee of stacking the scales to help Clinton, claiming it was being unfairly penalized for the data breach. At a news conference, Weaver insisted the campaign had dealt with the situation by firing its national data director. Later Friday, the campaign filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have its access to the file restored.
The Democratic committee is “actively” working to “undermine” the Sanders campaign, Weaver said, reflecting its longstanding frustration that the party apparatus, which is supposed to be neutral, is lining up behind Clinton.
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The reaction to the data breach, the depth of which was debated by all involved, tore open an ugly fault line between two camps that had so far engaged in a relatively civil White House campaign.
On the eve of the party’s next presidential debate, it also thrust into the open longstanding suspicions among Sanders and his supporters that the national party is unfairly working to support Clinton’s candidacy.
Beyond the question of whether the punishment fit the act, the flare-up came as the committee has already been accused of staging the party’s debates at times of low television viewership — like the one being held Saturday night — to diminish the chances that Clinton’s two rivals, Sanders and Martin O’Malley, will be able to raise their profiles.
While Sanders’ aides sought to show themselves as insurgents being unfairly penalized by the establishment, Clinton’s team and its allies used the issue Friday to try to puncture Sanders’ reputation as a different kind of politician.
“Think if one company accessed and stole another’s customer data. This is no small thing,” a supporter of Clinton, the former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, wrote on Twitter. “Sanders camp should be careful playing the victim.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the party committee, said it was indisputable that the Sanders campaign had gained access to information that it knew it was not entitled to. If the situation were reversed, she told CNN, the Sanders campaign would expect the same type of discipline of the Clinton campaign.
“The Sanders campaign doesn’t have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there,” she said. “It’s like if you found the front door of a house unlocked and someone decided to go into the house and take things that didn’t belong to them.”
At issue is a database of voter information, with millions of records, that the party makes available to campaigns for a fee, and is the “heart and soul” of modern presidential campaigns, as the Sanders campaign put it. State parties feed the list with information including names, addresses, ethnicity if available, and voting history. Usually, public election records show which elections a person has voted in, though who they voted for is secret.
The Democratic Party then adds data from commercially available lists that track such information as television habits and magazine subscriptions. They match voter names to donor lists created by political and nonpolitical organizations.
Each campaign then inputs data gathered by its own staff, gleaned from door knocks, phone calls, emails and other sources. With the data, they can assign voters their own “score” signifying how likely they are to vote for a candidate. The scores advise everything from decisions about whose doors to knock on to which voters might donate.
It is this use of the massive combination of data that drives modern campaigns, mastered by the Obama operations in 2008 and 2012, which had a team of more than 50 people poring over the information to best target their fundraising, persuasion and voter-turnout efforts.
The breach occurred Wednesday, when the firm that handles the list, NGP VAN, was making a tweak to its system and inadvertently dropped the firewall between the campaigns for approximately four hours, according to the court filing by the Sanders campaign. That meant the campaigns could see each other’s information. But only the Sanders campaign gained access to data that was proprietary.
According to two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, four user names associated with the Sanders campaign conducted 25 separate searches of the Clinton data. Audit trails of the logs show that people with the Sanders campaign searched and saved multiple files, creating new lists of their own.
On a conference call with reporters, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said the Sanders team was intentionally playing down what had happened, suggesting it “may have been a violation of the law.” He was upset that the Sanders campaign was sending out fundraising appeals accusing the party of unfair treatment.
“Our data was stolen,” Mook said. “This was not an inadvertent glimpse into our data. This was not, as the Sanders campaign described it, a mistake.”
Stu Trevelyan, chief executive of NGP VAN, said that by Friday morning he was confident that no other campaigns have had “access to or have retained any voter file data of any other clients.”
In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the Sanders campaign argued that the party had no right to terminate the licensing agreement that allowed the campaign access to the voter file. The campaign estimated the loss of access would cost it $600,000 in contributions, a serious blow because it has “been financed primarily with contributions from individual donors rather than Political Action Committees.”
Party representatives said they had not seen the suit and thus could not comment.
One show of support for Sanders’ case came from David Axelrod, a senior adviser for President Obama’s campaigns. He called the penalty “harsh,” saying on Twitter that, without evidence that the campaign hierarchy knew about data poaching, it appears that the “DNC is putting finger on scale.”
Josh Uretsky, the fired national data director from the Sanders campaign, also called the punishment “an overreaction” and insisted he had merely been trying to verify the data breach, adding: “We did so in a way that we know would create a record that the DNC and NGP VAN would have access to. We deliberately did not download or take custodianship of the records.”
Uretsky and Sanders’ aides did not address why multiple users from the campaign searched the Clinton data.
Uretsky acknowledged that Clinton data was being looked at but said his intent was to see whether the Sanders campaign’s data might also be vulnerable.