A Quick Guide to the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton Campaign Data Drama

Illustration for article titled A Quick Guide to the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton Campaign Data Drama

A data security glitch led to a Democratic party squabble this week, complete with a lawsuit, and accusations of spying and sabotage hurled between campaigns. I didn’t know it was possible to make Bernie Sanders more ornery, but here we are!


Here’s what you need to know about the conflict, and why voter data played such a big role:

Presidential candidates need money to campaign. A fuck ton of money. To get cash, they rely on political action committees and individual donations. Some political action committees have been called Super PACs since campaign donation limits were changed in 2010. Bernie Sanders has distanced himself from Super PACS as a political stance, since they can accept unlimited corporate donations. For Sanders, they represent a nasty strain of campaign finance corruption. The Sanders campaign, more than its rivals, relies on individual donations to keep chugging along.


Sanders, Clinton, and other candidates use voter databases to target people they can hit up for those donations. These databases aren’t just “John Doe, Chicago, registered Democrat.” They can be way more specific and detailed, as the Washington Post pointed out: “John Doe, Chicago, registered Democrat, donated $1k to Obama in 2008, divorced, 48” etc. etc. etc. Knowledge is power is money is winning is the reason why these databases are crucial to presidential hopefuls.

Sanders and Clinton both use a service provided by a company called NGP VAN to see the precious data compiled by the Democratic National Committee—but each campaign can add extra data into the voter list on top of what NGP VAN provides. For instance, Clinton’s campaign could add that John Doe was divorced, while Sanders’ campaign could dig up his donation history. The Clinton campaign could know more about certain pools of voters than the Sanders campaign, and vice versa—and it sure as hell wouldn’t tell the Sanders campaign about the extra information it had, since that’d be giving valuable help to a direct competitor.

This week, a staffer or group of staffers from the Sanders campaign noticed that they could see the Clinton campaign’s data. We don’t know exactly what they saw, but at least one staffer was fired. The Sanders campaign claims this happened because of a “dropped firewall.”

Bloomberg reported last night that the Clinton campaign had conducted an audit on the data to save some of that data:

According to an audit obtained by Bloomberg, Sanders staffers exploited a temporary glitch in the DNC’s voter database on Wednesday to save lists created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told reporter there were “24 intrusion attempts” by the Sanders campaign. He and Mook insisted that the Clinton campaign did not take advantage of the bug to look at Sanders’ data.


NGP VAN gave a statement that code it released “contained a bug” and emphasized that the Sanders campaign could briefly see some of the Clinton campaign’s proprietary data, but that it couldn’t download or export it. The technical details haven’t come out, but basically: The Sanders campaign could lurk on secret Clinton campaign data because of a technical problem.

This did not go over well with the Clinton campaign. Here’s a tweet from her press secretary:


It didn’t go over well with the DNC either. In fact, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz straight-up called it theft. “That is just like if you walked into someone’s home when the door was unlocked and took things that don’t belong to you in order to use them for your own benefit. That’s inappropriate. Unacceptable,” she told Wolf Blitzer.


The DNC cut off the Sanders campaign’s access to the database, which is like ripping a little liberal pig away from suckling a money-teat. Without that database, the Sanders campaign’s primary mode of fundraising was screwed, which is why Sanders sued the DNC, accusing it of sandbagging his campaign by choking his fundraising efforts.

“The DNC, in an inappropriate overreaction, has denied us access to our own data,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said at a press conference Friday. “In other words, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is actively trying to undermine our campaign.”


Late last night, the DNC and Sanders reached an agreement. Sanders got his access back, and his campaign agreed to cooperate with an investigation.

Meanwhile, the next Democratic debate is scheduled for tonight, and there’s a good chance this data-snatching ruckus will come up. Now you’ll know what they’re sniping about it if does—and why the volunteer calling and asking you to donate is so damn sneaky-knowledgeable about your soft spots.


Updated to include more detail about Super PACs and to include Bloomberg’s audit reporting

Image: AP


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So if the company admitted there was a bug and the Sanders campaign fired the person that presumably exploited the bug, why would the DNC punish the entire campaign? That’s... a bit much. These databases have to be gargantuan. Without the ability to export the data, it would have been a meaningless drop in the bucket since you’d have to manually copy the information into your own.