Why The Democratic Party's Move Against Bernie Sanders Could Backfire

He apologized to his supporters and to Clinton, but the party might be sorry later.

In the third Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) apologized to his supporters and to Hillary Clinton for his campaign’s accessing of her proprietary voter data earlier in the week.

But Sanders' apology overshadowed an attack he leveled just seconds earlier at Clinton and the Democratic National Committee for their handling of the situation. 

"It bothers me very much that rather than working on this issue to resolve it, it has become many press releases from the Clinton campaign later," he said.

Sanders argued that the breach was jointly the fault of the data vendor and a staffer who made a bad decision to try to exploit the vendor error. The DNC, which is seen as politically aligned with Clinton, responded by abruptly blocking Sanders' access to his own data, a virtual shutdown of the campaign.

Sanders called the DNC’s suspension “arbitrary." Josh Hendler, a top Democratic tech operative, warned Saturday that the DNC's move against Sanders could deeply damage the party in the future by undermining trust in the committee.

"[T]he stakes are higher than the political fight of the day between Bernie and Hillary," he wrote in a blog post. "The DNC being seen as a fair arbiter and steward of the data is critical to this continued advantage over Republicans. If the DNC is no longer that trusted broker, we might see candidates using third party systems. This risks the Party’s access to valuable data collected by campaigns, especially during a Presidential."

The apology from Sanders and the muted rhetoric from Clinton may come from a realization of the longterm stakes of the spat. Democrats are at a financial disadvantage against Republicans and allied outside groups, but have a technology edge due to effective cooperation, which has so far eluded conservatives. Losing the latter edge could be fatal as a national party.

Sanders' campaign staffers took advantage of a temporary technical glitch on Wednesday to access Clinton's voter data, which is maintained by the technology company NGP VAN and owned by the Democratic National Committee. Audit files from NGP VAN show that four different Sanders-linked accounts conducted 24 separate searches of Clinton data during a 40-minute period, searching for lists of voters most and least likely to support her campaign. In some cases, the staffers saved their search results in new folders.

Sanders has fired his national data director and is investigating whether to punish any other staff members who may have been involved. 

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said on Saturday that the campaign had suspended two staffers in connection with the data breach. 

At the debate, Sanders said his staff "did the wrong thing" by looking at Clinton's information, but that the DNC's subsequent blocking of his campaign from accessing its own data on Friday was "an egregious act." (The access was restored Saturday morning.)

His campaign sued the DNC in federal court on Friday, seeking an injunction to immediately overturn the DNC’s denial of access, claiming the party’s move would cost the campaign $600,000 a day in donations. The complaint, which was filed in federal district court in Washington, alleged that the DNC “failed to implement reasonable data security measures,” which led to “the inadvertent disclosure” this week of Clinton’s confidential voter information.

When pressed by the debate’s moderators, Sanders did apologize to Clinton and to his supporters for the incident.

"This is not the type of campaign that we run," he said.

Clinton said she appreciated Sanders’ apology and that she wanted to move forward.

"Obviously, we were distressed when we learned about it," she said. "Now that I think we've resolved your data, we've agreed on an independent inquiry, we should move on, because I don't think the American people are all that interested in this."

Clinton’s rhetoric on the issue was noticeably more conciliatory than that of her campaign’s leadership, who, on a press call Friday, criticized Sanders for stealing their data and for “misrepresenting what had occurred.” Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, suggested that what the Sanders staffers did “may have been a violation of the law.”

In a statement early Saturday morning, the DNC said the campaign staffers' actions were “completely unacceptable” and that the committee would continue to investigate the incident.

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