Drama broke out in the Democratic Party Friday, when news broke that the national committee had blocked the Bernie Sanders campaign from accessing its invaluable voter database, claiming that Sanders' staff had taken advantage of a software glitch to improperly spy on information collected by Hillary Clinton's campaign. Campaigns rely on voter data for everything from fundraising to knowing which doors to knock on to get voters out on Election Day, so getting cut off from that data is a big deal.
In response, the Sanders campaign fired the national data director responsible the accessing the Clinton files. And then it sued the Democratic National Committee, and accused the party of trying to sabotage the Vermont Senator's insurgent campaign.
"By their action, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign," Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said in a statement Friday. "This is unacceptable. Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign—one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history."
There's no denying that Sanders' camp shouldn't have accessed the Clinton campaign's private files. In a strongly worded statement Friday afternoon, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said that "the Sanders campaign had inappropriately and systematically accessed Clinton campaign data," and that access to the database would be suspended until the "the DNC is provided with a full accounting of whether or not this information was used and the way in which it was disposed."
But to legions of liberal Sanders' fans, it looked like the DNC had rushed to take sides, hand down punishments, and renounce one of the party's top two candidates, despite it's stated commitment to remain neutral in the 2016 primary race. And they saw it as confirmation of their long-held suspicions that the Party Establishment is in the tank for Hillary Clinton. By Friday evening, a MoveOn.org petition calling for Sanders' access to be reinstated had more than 250,000 signatures; another, circulated by the Sanders campaign, had gotten 214,800.
By late Friday night, the DNC caved, reaching a deal with the Sanders' campaign to restore its access to the voter files by Saturday morning. "The Sanders campaign has now complied with the DNC's request to provide the information that we have requested of them. Based on this information, we are restoring the Sanders campaign's access to the voter file, but will continue to investigate to ensure that the data that was inappropriately accessed has been deleted and is no longer in possession of the Sanders campaign.
While the data debacle seems to have been resolved, it's not the only instance where the Democratic Party seems to have quietly stacked the deck in favor of the Clinton campaign. The limited number of primary debates—and the fact that many of them (like the one tonight) are scheduled on Saturday nights—is the most obvious—and frequently cited—example. But the apparent bias can also be seen at the grassroots level, where state and local party leaders seem to have quietly gotten behind the frontrunner before voters have the opportunity to caucus or cast ballots.
Downtown Carson City. Photo by author
I noticed this recently, while on a photo assignment for VICE that took me to the four states that will hold the first primary contests in 2016. After spending time in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, I made my way to Nevada earlier this month, landing in Reno before blasting south across the Sierra Nevada mountains in my shiny black rental car, down to Carson City, the state capitol.
The plan, plotted out in a gas station parking lot, was to talk to local voters about the issues that that motivated them to get involved in the election, and snap their portraits. So I headed to the local party headquarters' to try to find some information about scheduled events. As a caucus state, both parties generally have an office in each county or voting precinct to facilitate caucusing and provide voters with information and answer questions. The GOP office was closed, so I headed across town, toward the Carson City Democratic Party headquarters.
Upon arriving, I met three smartly dressed men getting ready for an event they said was an opening party for the Clinton campaign's local field office. Registering my curiosity, one of them pointed to the back, and explained that the Clinton campaign was renting an office in the party headquarters.
With its walls papered with Hillary Clinton signs, and the seats carefully arranged for the Hillary for America ribbon-cutting, it was hard to tell where the Democratic Party's office ended and the Clinton office began. There were a few signs referencing Obama and the Affordable Care Act, but as far as I could tell, there weren't any that mentioned the two other Democrats running for president. And sure enough, both the Carson City Democratic Party and Hillary for America's Carson City field office list 502 E. John Street,
Before I could ask what time the event started, I was told I needed to talk to Tim Hogan, the Nevada communications director for Clinton's campaign. Back in my rental car, I emailed Hogan, explaining that I wanted to talk to registered voters and Nevada caucus goers. He replied with an invitation to the office opening, and included a clip about Clinton's recent endorsement from Carson City Democratic Party Chair Marty McGarry, whose office is also in the party headquarters at 502 E John Street. At the time, neither Sanders nor former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley had a field office in the city; the Sanders campaign opened one this week, a couple of blocks away from the space Clinton's team shares with McGarry and the Democratic Party.
At the time, it struck me as curious that the local Democratic Party—particularly one in a key early voting state—would allow a primary candidate to run a campaign from their office, sharing resources and space in a place where caucus voters might come with the expectation of balanced information on all of the party's candidates.
The front door to the Carson City Democratic Party headquarters, which is also the front door to Hillary for America's local field office. Photo by author
The following day, back in Reno, I met Joan Kato, Sanders' Nevada state director, who was in Reno for the opening of the campaign's field office there. When I asked if she had any thoughts about the Clinton campaign sharing office space with the Carson City Democratic Party in Carson City, she said that the Sanders campaign hadn't been offered any resources from the local party.
"This campaign is proud to be opening offices throughout the state," Kato told me in a follow-up email this week. "As of Thursday, we will have a total of 8 offices in Nevada—more than any other presidential candidate in the race."
"None of our offices are located within the Nevada State Democratic Party or any of their affiliate offices," she added.
The Clinton campaign doesn't seem to see an issue with the Carson City office arrangement. "This space is like any other office space," Hogan told me in an email. "There was space for rent and we pay for our portion of the office."
The Clinton campaign pumps up the audience at the opening of its Carson City field office, which it shares with the local Democratic Party. Image via Facebook
Because of the intimate nature of a caucus vote—which lets campaign volunteers basically try to convince their neighbors to vote for their candidate—field organization is critical for any presidential campaign in Nevada. Typically, campaigns carry out their own field organization, investing sizable resources to register new voters, recruit volunteers, and train people to advocate for their candidate at the caucus. Local party chapters have similar organizing targets, but in theory at least, their work is distinct from the campaigns until the votes are tallied. In Carson City, though, that doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, Hillary for Nevada is hosting a "caucus convention"—a sort of dress rehearsal for the February 20 vote—at the East John Street office this Sunday.
"Our organizing offices are hubs of on-the-ground activity in communities across the state. We host phone banks, launch canvasses, hold one-on-one meetings with supporters, and organize communities from these offices," Hogan said in his email. "The Hillary for Nevada team also hosts caucus trainings at our offices. In Nevada, in addition to identifying support, we have a caucus education program to ensure that everyone who wants to make their voice heard at the February 20 Nevada caucus is prepared to participate and knows what to do and where to be."
As far as I can tell, there aren't any rules against this type of arrangement, at least at the county level—although traditionally even local party chapters (though not individual party officials) have been expected to remain neutral in primary contests.
"The county parties control who can and cannot work out of their office space," Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Nevada State Democratic Party told me in an email. "No presidential campaigns work out of any state party offices."
While all of this may seem relatively innocuous—it is, after all, just one field office in one state, and Sanders' campaign appears to have a similar arrangement in at least one of its field office, renting the party headquarters in Anderson, South Carolina. (Unlike in Carson City, though, the chair of the local party has insisted that the lease does not amount to an endorsement of Sanders' campaign.)
In Carson City, it's easy to see how the shared space, and parallel organizing goals, could get messy, or at the very least, confuse voters. When someone comes into the office for information about the party's candidates, is she greeted by representatives of the local Democratic Party, or Hillary Clinton volunteers? Would a Sanders supporter, voting in a caucus for the first time, be taught how the process works by someone from the Clinton campaign? The latter scenario seems particularly troubling, given that there's a direct benefit to having a rival campaign not know how to caucus.
I've reached out several times to the Carson City Democratic Party with these questions, but so far, no one from the local office has responded to my requests for comment.
Paul Catha. Photo by author
At this point, Sanders' Carson City supporters aren't storming 502 E. John Street like the Bastille, although that could change after Friday's events. The people I spoke to a few weeks ago seemed a little troubled by the office setup. "I do think that it is incredibly important that the local party organizations stay neutral in the primary in order to maintain a fair political process," said Paul Catha, a 21-year-old Sanders supporter from northern Nevada, who serves as state treasurer for the Young Democrats of Nevada.
Even if we assume that everyone is acting in good faith, though—and at this point, there's no reason not to—the message, however subtle, is that Democrats are for Hillary Clinton, and members of the party are expected to fall in line.
"It certainly looks bad, but I'm sure the Sanders and O'Malley crews already are aware that the party leaders tacitly support Clinton," said Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political reporter who is the go-to expert on the state's presidential caucuses. "This is the story all across the country, that the Democrats just want Bernie to go away so Hillary can sweep the primaries/caucuses and worry about the Republicans."
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