The first thing to understand is that NGPVAN is a creaky voter database system that looks, and feels like it was put together in the 1990s. It has been the mainstay of Democratic campaigns all across the country and has intense loyalty among national campaign professionals—though it should be noted that the California Democratic Party uses one of its more robust and more expensive competitors PDI (PDI, hilariously, sent an email this morning to its users with the subject line “At PDI Data Security Is Our Top Priority.”) I myself have extensive experience running campaigns on both platforms, both as a campaign consultant and as a county Democratic Party official in California.
The DNC contracts with NGPVAN, meaning that firewalls between competitive primary campaigns within NGPVAN are incredibly important. But they also have been known to fail. When that happens, campaign professionals are expected to behave in a moral and legal manner. But they would also be stupid not to, since every action taken by an NGPVAN user is tracked and recorded on the server side.
The other important piece of information to note is the difference between a “saved search” and a “saved list.” NGPVAN’s voter tracking has the option of being dynamic or static, meaning that you can run dynamic searches of voters whose characteristics may change as NGPVAN’s data is updated, or you can pull static lists of voters who currently fit the profile you are seeking. Most voter data pulls within an NGPVAN campaign will be dynamic searches—and in fact, that is the default setting. You really only want to pull a static list if you’re doing something specific like creating a list for a targeted mail piece—or if you want a quick snapshot in time of a raw voter list.
However, merely pulling a search or a list doesn’t mean you can automatically download all the information on those voters. You can see topline numbers. You can take a few screenshots—though it would take hundreds of screenshots and the data would be nearly useless in that format. To download the actual data, you would need to run an export—a step that requires extra levels of permissions only allowed to the highest level operatives. Despite the breach that allowed them to run lists and searches, Sanders staffers apparently did not have export access.
However, the access logs do show that Sanders staff pulled not one but multiple lists—not searches, but lists—a fact that shows intent to export and use. And the lists were highly sensitive material. News reports have indicated that the data was “sent to personal folders” of the campaign staffers—but those refer to personal folders within NGPVAN, which are near useless without the ability to export the data locally.
Even without being able to export, however, merely seeing the topline numbers of, say, how many voters the Clinton campaign had managed to bank as “strong yes” votes would be a valuable piece of oppo. While it’s not the dramatic problem that a data export would have been, it’s undeniable that the Sanders campaign gleaned valuable information from the toplines alone. It’s also quite clear that most of the statements the Sanders campaign made as the story progressed—from the claim that the staffers only did it to prove the security breach, or that only one staffer had access—were simply not true. It’s just not clear at this point whether the campaign’s comms people knew the truth and lied, or whether they were not being told the whole truth by the people on the data team who were still making up stories and excuses to cover their tracks. I suspect the latter.
In this context, it made sense for Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC to suspend the Sanders campaign’s access to the data until it could determine the extent of the damage, and the degree to which the Clinton campaign’s private data had been compromised. As it turns out the ethical breach by Sanders operatives was massive, but the actual data discovery was limited. So it made sense and was fairly obvious that the DNC would quickly end up giving the campaign back its NGPVAN access—particularly since failing to do so would be a death sentence for the campaign and a gigantic black eye to the party.
In other words, Team Bernie got cute, got caught, and then cried foul that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the bad guy here, and not the Sanders campaign stupidly playing fast and loose with the rules.
The Sanders campaign then completely overreacted when they got caught, period.
So bottom line, the Sanders folks are correct when they say that the DNC is favoring Hillary and Schultz has her thumb on the scale against them. That's not up for debate in any way. I have long advocated for Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign, and the main reason she still is in charge of the DNC is that the Hillary Clinton camp will burn the place down if she goes. It's a lousy arrangement.
However, the Hillary folks are 100% correct that if the roles had been reversed, the Sanders people would be screaming bloody murder and that the media, the Sanders campaign, and the GOP would be demanding Hillary drop out of the race immediately. That's not up for debate either, this would have been front page news for weeks, if not months.
Finally, the DNC was right, as David says, to bust the Sanders campaign openly and publicly and then to give the data back to the Sanders campaign when they were done satisfying the Clinton team. The Sanders camp got caught and should have taken the loss. Instead they allowed their frustration to damage everyone involved, in the kind of petulant stunt that Sanders and his supporters are rapidly becoming infamous for. Hillary may be a pain in the ass and all, but the Sanders folks are sore, sore losers.
Can we get back to preventing the Republicans from winning, guys?