What Democrats should learn from the Bernie Sanders data kerfuffle

The largely behind-the-scenes tension between the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential candidates not named Hillary Clinton spilled out into the open late last week over a campaign data dispute. In the end, it would make all sides involved — the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, the DNC, and data services vendor NGP-Van — look bad, if anyone was paying attention at all.

Campaign data may seem like an obscure topic, but it’s hugely important. In this case, the DNC used a third-party vendor, NGP-VAN, to give presidential campaigns access to a voter database. Each campaign could then add information as it identified its own supporters, and there was supposed to be a firewall shielding that information from other campaigns. Unfortunately, that firewall broke down, and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staff were able to access Clinton’s data.

In response, the Democratic National Committee initially shut off Sanders’ access to the database completely, which cut him off from using his campaign’s own information as well. The committee later restored access after he filed suit, and during Saturday’s debate he apologized to Clinton for his staff having accessed her campaign’s data. Though this conflict is seemingly resolved — at least for the moment — it does provide a broader insight into the presidential race and the state of the Democratic Party.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. Brian Snyder | Reuters

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. Brian Snyder | Reuters

Initially, Sanders seemed to show a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the DNC, but he quickly backed down, firing staffers who accessed the data and apologizing to Clinton. He did not, as several Republican candidates have at various points during this cycle, threaten to mount an independent bid for the White House if he was not treated fairly by the party establishment. This may be because he is truly committed to the Democratic Party, or it may because he knows that such an effort is unlikely to be successful. At any rate, it shows that he is only willing to go so far in his campaign against Clinton and the Democratic Party insiders supporting her.

Sanders’ willingness to back down from this fight may lead the folks at the DNC to breath a sigh of relief, but it is unlikely to sit well with some of his supporters. Just as Sanders would not take up Republican criticism of Clinton over her improper use of a personal email account during her time as Secretary of State, he was unwilling to continue his criticism of the DNC once his campaign got access back to the database. That changed the story from one of the establishment vs. the grassroots to a technical dispute between two campaigns over data use, one that will be readily swept from the headlines.

This story shouldn’t be ignored, however. If the Democrats lose control of the White House in 2016, the party’s next presidential primary will be wide open. In that situation, these tensions between the party establishment and grassroots will be at the forefront of the campaign; they won’t simply bubble beneath the surface. With no clear frontrunner, the differences among the candidates will be stark — just as they are for Republicans in this cycle. This incident, though it may seem minor now, will likely loom large in the minds of insurgent candidates and their supporters, as will other perceived biases towards Clinton by the DNC. Those candidates will be less likely to trust the DNC with their data or anything else, hurting the party as a whole.

If Democrats were wise, they would scrupulously avoid even the slightest appearance of bias now and save themselves a great deal of heartache later — but so far, there’s been no indication they’ve learned that lesson.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.