Why America Couldn't Hear Or See Bernie Protesters During Hillary Clinton's Speech

Some Bernie-or-Busters protested Clinton's speech on Thursday. But thanks to an elaborate organizing effort — from group messages to moles inside Sanders delegations to coordinated chants — the campaign overwhelmed the protest effort.

For 57 minutes on Thursday night, America saw Hillary Clinton deliver a polished primetime acceptance speech, interrupted only by positive chants from the hall.

And for two weeks leading up to those 57 minutes, the most pivotal of the Democratic National Convention, a tightly organized hierarchy of delegates, floor "whips," floor captains, and regional coordinators honed a system unseen by viewers at home to counter hecklers in real time and intercept rumored protests, aided in secret by allies in the ranks of agitated Bernie Sanders delegates.

The whip operation relied on the same strict preparation and careful execution that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook has made his trademark, according to details provided by two operatives involved, including a state floor captain.

Some Sanders delegates were recruited to act as moles, sniffing out plans for demonstrations on various pro-Sanders email and chat threads, the floor captain said. Over GroupMe, a messaging app, alerts went out about what to look for, including rumored plots to disrupt Clinton’s speech by ringing cowbells, throwing toilet paper, blocking doors, and lying in the aisles of the Wells Fargo Center.

Each state's floor captains briefed their delegates on what to do in the event of nearly every possible protest. There were banners stashed under chairs across the arena in case Bernie-or-Bust delegates needed to be blocked, and aides distributed signs throughout the course of each night, overtaking anti-Clinton posters and T-shirts.

“None of it was intimidation or muscular or silencing. It was all just preparation,” the floor captain said.

“You’re gonna chant? We’re gonna chant louder. You’re gonna have a banner? We’re gonna have a bigger banner.” A lone heckler? “We had them surrounded.”

The orders went from regional coordinators stationed in the boiler room, the campaign's headquarters for the duration of the convention, down to Clinton's state floor captains — the people tasked with managing delegates, maintaining the best visuals in their section of the hall, and running a team of several floor whips.

In the lead-up to Thursday, floor captains were subjected to surprise dress rehearsal drills, testing out each state's response to a disruptive pro-Sanders scenario.

Delegates were told to immediately counter boos and hecklers with chants, prompted by a phonetic command over GroupMe: “HILL-A-REE," the cue read.

“As soon as it started, we knew what we must do, and every delegate knew what they must do,” the floor captain said. Instantly, Clinton delegates in the state seated closest to the heckler received the text, raised their signs, and started chanting.

The effect of the operation in the arena, if not on television, was a series of "Hillary" chants from small pockets of the crowd, occasionally at ill-timed moments in Thursday's speech, causing Clinton to pause as the cheers spread across the hall.

Many of the loudest hecklers came from Sanders’ California delegation. To prepare, the campaign sent about 50 of its delegates to the Wells Fargo Center to stand in line and reserve seats, ensuring the section would have a heavy Clinton presence up front.

The campaign approached the DNC's rules committee meeting last weekend with a similar strategy, creating three tiers of safeguards to ensure that delegates would vote according to plan: There was another GroupMe chat, a system of hand signals (two fingers for yes, one for no), and code words embedded in the testimony Clinton delegates gave on behalf of each amendment that came before the committee.

The whip teams were put together by David Huynh, the campaign's director of delegate operations and ballot access, with help from Sanders campaign aides, who repeatedly encouraged the senator’s supporters to soften their protests amid tensions over last week's leaked Democratic National Committee emails.

On at least one occasion during the convention, floor whips had to unfurl a “Stronger Together” banner, blocking a group of progressives holding “Oligarch” signs. In the end, the campaign did not have to deploy its largest banner.

"It's not that we were expecting anything," the floor captain said. "It was that we prepared for anything."

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