MANCHESTER, N.H. — Data wizards responsible for some of the most sophisticated digital targeting in Democratic campaign history started out Friday morning largely defending the Bernie Sanders campaign after the Democratic National Committee blocked its access to vital voter file data.
But as the afternoon progressed, and more details about the Sanders campaign's access of the Hillary Clinton campaign's internal voter data due to a vendor error were uncovered by reporters, the Democratic tech leaders grew less confident that the Sanders campaign was being unfairly punished.
Some of the initial defense of Sanders came from a common disdain for NGP —the vendor that serves both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns — among many in the Democratic tech world. The company is a data powerhouse and ubiquitous across Democratic campaigns. The company’s software is essentially the Microsoft Windows of Democratic campaigns.
Tech-savvy Democrats say the company with a monopoly on the Democratic voter file has sometimes been slow to improve the interface, and they're frustrated with what they say is the inherent kludginess of its software.
“I have to admit — I love any story that pulls back the covers on the ineptness of NGP,” a high-profile Democratic data guru emailed BuzzFeed News Friday morning.
The Sanders campaign has put criticism of NGP at the center of its defense against the DNC’s suspension of its voter file privileges.
“On more than one occasion, they have dropped the firewall between the data of competing Democratic campaigns. That is dangerous incompetence. It was our campaign months ago that alerted the DNC to the fact that campaign data was being made available to other campaigns,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a statement from the campaign. “At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor that the problem would be resolved. Unfortunately, the other day, the vendor once again dropped the firewall between the campaigns for some data.”
Ethan Roeder, data director for both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns, spoke harshly about the DNC’s plan on social media early Friday as Democrats woke up to the news about the DNC access ban. Like many, he called for an immediate restoration of full access to the voter file.
But after reports that the party’s data vendor, NGP VAN, had logs of Sanders campaign activity inside the Clinton voter file data and other data, he said he was more apt to take the DNC’s side.
“The more details that come out, the messier it seems,” he told BuzzFeed News in an interview Friday afternoon.
As he did on social media and in interviews throughout the day, Roeder maintained his belief that there wasn’t much the Sanders campaign could have done with the data the DNC alleges it downloaded from Clinton after an NGP VAN software glitch made it available to everyone. He also said it was “a little weird” that only Sanders was shut off from voter file data and not all other candidates, but he said if the DNC has evidence, it was prudent to cut off Sanders during the investigation.
"It's fair that they're doing that,” he said. “It's just important that they are incredibly swift when it comes to turning it back on.”
Friday morning, Michael Simon, the head of targeting and analytics for Obama’s 2008 campaign, tweeted missives at the DNC. “Nothing nefarious happened here,” he wrote. “DNC is risking its neutrality every minute it keeps Bernie Sanders data access off.”
“To be totally clear: I'm not a Sanders supporter, but this is tech error caused by vendor, reported by campaign & sounds worse than it is,” he added in a followup tweet.
But as the hours ticked by and more news about the breach trickled out, he changed his tune — at least when it came to his full-throated defense of Sanders.
“I take back 'nothing nefarious' comment. Looks shady,” he tweeted. “But cutting off data access not right, causes irreparable harm to democratic process.”
Through email, Simon expanded on his shifting position to BuzzFeed News.
“Looks increasingly like Sanders campaign didn't behave well when they discovered the error,” he explained. “Data campaigns collect is invaluable — in 2015 it IS the campaign! So this is a not insignificant thing to the Clinton campaign.”
But Simon was adamant that the DNC went too far when it came to cutting off Sanders voter file access, a move that severely limits the field work the campaign can do in the crucial run up to Iowa. Simon said the Sanders pledge to take the Democratic Party to court to get the data turned back was the right move.
“By the same reasoning, it is also not an insignificant thing to deny the Sanders campaign access to data — even temporarily,” he told BuzzFeed News. “If I were them; I'd be seeking a preliminary injunction as well.”
“Data is like electricity and plumbing to a modern campaign,” he added. “Shutting down access to make them prove a negative — that they DIDN’T do something, is really harmful in ways that can't be undone.”