Thoughts on the Sanders/DNC Data Debacle

NGP VAN donkeys

Who said all the drama is on the Republican side of the presidential race! This week, the Democrats embraced public strife in a big way, with harsh words and a lawsuit to liven up a contest that had settled into a steady pattern. Hillary Clinton was the strong frontrunner, with Bernie Sanders in the Paul Tsongas/Bill Bradley role, appealing to a specific segment of the Democratic electorate but otherwise doomed to defeat.

Then came the political technology — specifically, a software patch to NGPVAN’s VoteBuilder system that briefly opened a window for Sanders’ staff to look at Clinton grassroots-outreach voter data. And look they did, with national data director Josh Uretsky and his staff copying Clinton lists to their own accounts. But not for long, since the bug was quickly fixed…technically, at least. Within a day, though, the DNC — which contracts with NGPVAN for party digital tools — had cut off Sanders staff’s access entirely in retaliation, leaving his campaign unable to view their OWN priority contact lists and field canvassing information just weeks before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.

This move sparked hot words, with the Sanders team suing the DNC to restore access, but by Saturday the two sides had worked things out enough for Bernie to get back into VoteBuilder. Problem solved? Not quite — plenty of ill will remained on both sides, in a political cycle in which Democrats need to hold every possible voter inside the tent if they’re going to win the presidency and make much-needed gains down-ballot. What’s the fallout?

The Power of Campaign Technology and Data

Has campaign software and data ever caused such a stir? Not that I can remember, and I’ve been in this business a long time. NGPVAN’s software update glitch is the kerfluffle’s proximate cause, of course, and the company is left with a public-relations mess to clean up. But the simple fact that cutting off the Sanders campaign’s access to data and organizing software was such a serious matter teaches us just how central this technology has become to modern political campaigns — and how important NGPVAN’s products in particular are to the Democrats.

Plenty of online commenters were happy to label the company incompetent, but that hasn’t been my experience: everyone I know over there is conscientious and competent. Still, allowing a bug like this to open customers’ accounts to other campaigns is a major mistake, and they’re going to have to take their lumps over it. Somehow I suspect that they’ll handle future software upgrades more carefully.

A Betrayal of Bernie Sanders’ Values?

The Sanders campaign may have fired Uretsky, but they also stood by his story that he was accessing Clinton campaign data solely to document the breach. But lets look at what Uretsky and his data team did, the latter at his behest:

The database logs created by NGP VAN show that four accounts associated with the Sanders team took advantage of the Wednesday morning breach. Staffers conducted searches that would be especially advantageous to the campaign, including lists of its likeliest supporters in 10 early voting states, including Iowa and New Hampshire…

The logs show that the Vermont senator’s team created at least 24 lists during the 40-minute breach, which started at 10:40 a.m., and saved those lists to their personal folders. The Sanders searches included New Hampshire lists related to likely voters, “HFA Turnout 60-100” and “HFA Support 50-100,” that were conducted and saved by Uretsky. Drapkin’s account searched for and saved lists including less likely Clinton voters, “HFA Support <30" in Iowa, and "HFA Turnout 30-70"' in New Hampshire.

Knowledgeable friends have pointed out to me that this information isn’t exactly the crown jewels of political data, but it was still important — and clearly off-limits to the Sanders campaign. But regardless of Uretsky’s protestations to the contrary, calling this pattern of behavior an attempt to document the problem doesn’t pass the political smell test. For one thing, why not run one search to record the issue and then alert NGPVAN? Or, simply call the campaign account rep right away. Instead, it took a “third party” to report the problem.

From a practical politics point of view, what Uretsky and his team did seems downright stupid. Bernie is openly running against the Democratic Establishment, and campaign staff have to know that people are gunning for him. An insurgent campaign has to work twice as hard not to open itself up to attack, making this kind of unforced error an example of political malpractice.

A bigger problem for Sanders, though, is that this episode feels like exactly the kind of hack politics he campaigns against. And if you’re going to hold yourself above the political, you have an extra responsibility to act like it. Uretsky should have understood how important ethics and accountability are to the campaign’s public image and acted accordingly. Instead, he looks like a classic politico, happy to seize a moment’s advantage regardless of the rules. This entire episode feels like a betrayal of the campaign’s values…perhaps one reason they spoke so aggressively in public?

Update: Bernie Sanders apologized right off the bat at the December 19th Democratic debate, to both Clinton and his supporters. Smart and classy move.

The DNC Looks Like a Bully

If Bernie and NGPVAN both come off looking bad, the DNC looks like an outright bully. NGP staff closed the hole after only 40 minutes of unauthorized access, and they fixed the problem completely within hours. Still, the DNC closed off the Sanders campaign entirely the next day, even though — as Sanders’ lawuit points out — the campaign’s contract with the party committee specified a ten-day wait. Also note the language committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz used on Friday: “the Sanders campaign unfortunately doesn’t have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there.”

These actions and words alike drove the Sanders team (and plenty of online activists) to accuse the DNC of favoritism toward Clinton, and the word “conspiracy” quickly floated around Twitter. It’s interesting to think about how the committee might have reacted if the Clinton campaign had done something similar — had the data flowed in the other direction, would they have responded as harshly? Even when announcing that Bernie and the DNC had made a deal, Wasserman Schultz sounded like a partisan:

“Thankfully, after refusing to give us the information we were asking for for nearly two days, last night, we did reach an agreement with the campaign,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN’s Victor Blackwell Saturday morning. “They finally gave us the information that we had been asking for so that we could begin to assess the depth of the breach where their staff looked inappropriately at unauthorized material that was the proprietary information of the Clinton campaign.”

Words that might have come out of the mouth of a Clinton campaign spokesperson! With Clinton leading Sanders by nearly two to one, and the committee already suspected of working for an easy Clinton victory, was this entire affair necessary? Couldn’t it have been handled behind the scenes? Instead, the DNC made it a public fight — one that left the entire Democratic Party the loser.

If Democrats are going to beat the Republican nominee next year, they’re going to have to fight together, not against each other. Party activists have plenty of beefs with the direction of the Democratic leadership already (whatever happened to that 50 State Strategy?), and this incident only adds to the perception that the party establishment needs a serious shake-up.

Moving Forward

What does this incident mean in the long term? Quite possibly, nothing — at least as far as electoral politics goes. Clinton will likely win the nomination, Bernie will grudgingly endorse her, and few people other than political technology nerds will give it much thought.

For NGPVAN, the fallout’s likely to be worse. Techies are already criticizing their products’ basic architecture, suggesting that the company needs separate software “instances” for each campaign rather than a common, shared database. When I asked NGPVAN CEO Stu Trevelyan about that question, though, he replied:

The structure of VoteBuilder intentionally is collaborative, with Democratic campaigns sharing voter names, addresses, voter history, some DNC scores, etc. When one campaign finds out a [has] voter moved, all the VoteBuilder campaigns in that area benefit from not wasting their time and money on that voter. So, yes, we considered it, and rejected it in favor of something that provides more value to our clients.

Others, though, will question the very notion of the party relying on a handful of vendors like this one for essential technology infrastructure. The Republicans have adopted a different model, for example, creating standards that allow many different companies to compete to provide data services. But many knowledgeable Democratic friends contend that the strengths of the current arrangement outweigh the dangers, for exactly the reasons Stu cites above — campaign collaboration through a central system is a strength, a feature rather than a bug.

On the longer-term political front, though, this episode will only add to chorus of voices calling for fundamental change in how the Democratic Party operates. With state-level organizing tools and the state parties themselves seemingly an afterthought for the DNC leadership, how does the Left stand any chance of taking back the thousands of state and local offices once held by Democrats but now monopolized by Republicans? Change had better come, unless Democrats want to remain a sad minority at all but the most rarified levels of American politics.


My thinking on this matter was shaped in part by the robust conversations taking place around Facebook posts by Laura Packard and myself. Thanks to everyone who weighed in.

Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Good piece, Colin. You provide an insightful analysis of what happened and why it matters.

    I agree with you that there was no need for the Sanders campaign to download data to their folders in order to document the problem (i.e. that justification “doesn’t pass the political smell test.”) All they needed to do was send a couple of screen grabs and send them to their account reps at NGP-VAN.

    The most interesting aspect of this is the debate between “separate instances” vs. a jointly accessible database among the Democratic candidates. I could argue it either way. Stu makes a solid argument for the joint approach, but this episode shows the downside of that approach. I’d be interested to read a piece by you that probes the extent to which the GOP candidates’ data teams collaborate in this way, if at all.

    Keep up the great work, Colin.

  • Nice article Colin. Heard about this, but I didn’t know the details. Interesting world of politics. I guess it is NGPVANgate!