Hackathon

Democratic Firestorm Shows Data is King

The Democratic family feud illustrates how important detailed files on voters have become

Tad Devine: DNC’s Grinding Our Campaign to a Halt

If cash fuels a modern presidential campaign, data drives it.

That's why a technical glitch that allowed staff from Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign to access a voter list created by Hillary Clinton has set off a firestorm. As a result, the Democratic National Committee has suspended Sanders' access to the party's coveted database, a move that could be devastating if it stays in place. 

"Getting cut off would be huge and would deprive them of the building block of all campaigns and especially primary elections," Ken Goldstein, a University of San Francisco professor and polling analyst for Bloomberg Politics, said in an e-mail. "In primaries, voter file information and modeling is frankly even more important than general elections because turnout is smaller and they don't have simple party ID to guide efforts."

Democrats build their campaigns on the backbone of the DNC voter data, using it to help target messages and identify potential donors for their races. Beyond the person's name and address, the file includes demographic and geographic data for registered voters, e-mail addresses, voter-registration status, voting history and telephone numbers. But it doesn't stop there. The lists also have consumer data, ethnicity information, political party preference and candidate preference.

Campaigns spend months refining the file to further identify who is a supporter and who may be on the fence.

Campaigns get an account through the DNC to access the data via a third-party vendor NGP VAN, said Lara Brown, associate professor and director of the political management program at The George Washington University. Campaigns then save their work, such as information gathered from knocking on people's doors, into the system for further analysis.

"What it really is is a customer relations management system," she said. "In the business world, these types of things are like Salesforce."

During the second and third quarters this year, Clinton's campaign paid NGP VAN a total of $113,675 for database services while Sanders campaign paid $48,200, according U.S. Federal Election Commission records.

"The VAN helps organizers execute field plans that knock the right doors and make the right phone calls in the most efficient way, collect the right information, and holds the data for future coordinated voter contact," the company said in a statement on its website in 2013 after it won an award for its work.

NGP VAN has been in business for 19 years ago, working with Democratic campaigns of all sizes. The problem occurred Dec. 16 when the company released a new code containing a bug that for a brief time allowed users to see what attributes were assigned to various voters, the company said on its website.

The Democrats hold their third debate for presidential candidates Saturday in advance of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on February 1 which are followed by the New Hampshire primary.

DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement that Sanders staffers had "inappropriately and systematically access" Clinton data, running afoul of an agreement that all three Democratic presidential campaigns have signed with the party. Sanders fired its national data director following the revelation of the breach and Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver on Friday suggested the DNC's punishment of the campaign was excessive. 

Depending upon how Sanders was managing his data, the campaign may have redundancy that allow it to access the files its already used and created, said Joe Trippi, a chief strategist for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004. If not, "the worst case scenario is that they are screwed, they have no access to their own data," he said. "Literally, everything you've done for the last six, seven months is gone."

Sanders' campaign, in a lawsuit filed Friday, said it used the file to help identify donors, noting that a three-day fundraising effort in December raised more than $2.4 million through strategic use of the file. The campaign said the DNC's suspension was costing about $600,000 a day.

Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, said in a call with reporters Friday night that it's the Democratic front-runner who is potentially the biggest victim. "Our data was stolen," he said, saying that the Sanders campaign got access to a database that took "hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours to build" and represented "effectively the strategic roadmap" of the Clinton campaign.

"There may be some damage here than cannot be undone," said Mook.

Earlier Friday, Sanders' campaign released an e-mail saying that being blocked from the data prohibited them from contacting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire  "on the day we reached two million individual contributions and received two of our most prominent endorsements is disconcerting."

 

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