Last week, the Democratic presidential primary race was shaken up when Bernie Sanders’s campaign gained access to data privately obtained and managed by Hillary Clinton’s staff.
Though Sanders was quick to apologize to Clinton and his supporters in Saturday night’s debate on ABC, the controversy impacted student organizations like Penn for Hillary and Penn for Bernie.
Penn for Hillary uses and collects information on likely voters — data the Sanders campaign was subsequently barred from viewing by the Democratic National Committee. This information is often key to on-the-ground, grassroots efforts during primary season.
Penn for Hillary Executive Director of Political Affairs and Engineering sophomore Michael Ramdatt said in an online message that the group has access to some regional voter data. As the organization continues campaign efforts in Philadelphia, it plans to use NGP VAN, a private vendor that manages DNC voter information, to maximize outreach.
He emphasized that the breach is serious because the data collection process is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, though Ramdatt doubted DNC Pennsylvania voter information was affected.
The race is generally decided by the time Pennsylvania voters go to the polls for their April primary, he said.
Penn for Hillary phone banks and plans on canvassing in West Philadelphia closer to the primary. Recently, the group traveled to Hillary for America headquarters in Brooklyn to support efforts in New Hampshire.
Ramdatt said that in these cases, the Clinton campaign provided the group with voter data, which was then used to achieve various objectives. Afterwards, Penn for Hillary shared its results with the campaign.
He adds that many of the organization’s events are uncoordinated; Penn for Hillary’s listserv database is not shared with the national campaign, and personal information is never forwarded without permission.
“Campaigns add their own information about those voters — usually, information gathered from door-to-door canvassing and phone calls,” according to a Dec. 18 article by NPR. “They also use the data to conduct big-picture modeling about voters' likely preferences for specific candidates and develop their overall strategy.”
On Dec. 16, NGP VAN, which manages the databases owned by the DNC and each Democratic candidate's campaigns, accidentally updated its program with an unintended bug. The mistake allowed Sanders staffers to view private Clinton analytics.
A day later, the DNC responded by temporarily suspending the Sanders campaign’s access to all voter data, potentially crippling its recruitment efforts.
This data likely contains information regarding on-the-fence voters and is often a key tool for local college campaign groups.
Penn for Bernie currently receives no information on potential voters from the national campaign, Co-President and College junior Matre Grant said in an online message. She added that the organization anticipates participating in more phone banking and canvassing next semester.
The data breach had not affected Penn for Bernie specifically, but did impact their umbrella organization, College Students for Bernie, which had been organizing in Iowa and New Hampshire, she said.
Penn Democrats plans on canvassing on behalf of the Democratic candidate, but has not begun yet, said Penn Democrats President and College junior Max Levy in an online message.
Levy and his group provide information to the campaigns through canvassing and phone banks, but are typically not told if that information gets passed on to the DNC, he added.
Outgoing Penn College Republicans President and College senior Will Cassidy is familiar with the business of voter data operations. He currently helps run Cedar Analytics, a Penn-based startup that provides campaigns with predictive analytics and data management and often interacts with the Republican National Committee.
“The DNC's data operation seems to only work through a single vendor, which make it more susceptible to breakdowns where different candidates access other candidates' data. By and large, this isn't the case for Republican presidential candidates,” he wrote in an email. “For example, Ted Cruz, who has the most sophisticated data operation, uses an outside firm called Cambridge Analytica. While some of the candidate's data will be fed back to the RNC, there are additional safeguards which it appears the DNC did not have in place.”
He estimates that Republican presidential candidates will have a limited response to the data breach.
Last week, the Sanders campaign accused the DNC of breach of contract. The campaign, which has been funded without a super political action committee, argued that blocking its staffers from voter data is particularly damaging to individual donor recruitment. His lawsuit estimated that the resultant financial loss was worth $600,000 a day.
These data breaches are not unheard of, however. In 2008, confidential information was mistakenly transferred to the Clinton campaign in the Democratic primary from Barack Obama’s. Two months ago, Sanders staffers found another hole in the data privacy software, which was reported to the DNC and resolved.
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