Why The Bernie Breach Isn’t About Technology, And What’s At Stake
As someone who has waded deeply in this space and has friends on every side, it’s been hard to watch the DNC/Bernie/Hillary/NGPVAN brouhaha unfold. I led the DNC data program for several years starting in 2005, and then served as the Technology Director from 2010–11. While at the DNC, I was part of a team that created the programs at the core of today’s debate: a uniform agreement with state-parties for data sharing, a national contract with the VAN (now NGPVAN), and Presidential candidate access.
There’s one piece of context required to understand the meaningful implications of the current debate. And it’s not about what Bernie’s team covertly did, or institutional bias on behalf of the Party.
It’s about trust.
The Democratic Party’s technological lead over Republicans has been much heralded and not seriously contested until recently. NGPVAN, to be sure, is one of the reasons for that lead. But it hasn’t been just about one tool. An ecosystem of technologists and companies has made the Democrat’s advantage possible (Blue State Digital, NGPVAN, TargetSmart, Catalist, and more recently, Civis, Blue Labs, etc.) Each of these companies has provided mostly complementary solutions, which make the technological lead possible.
One leading reason for the advantage, however, has been been the widespread adoption and use of the Party’s national voter file tool among candidates. Republicans have simply never seen this level of use. As recently as June, there was an open spat between the Koch brothers and the RNC about what platform candidates should be using.
The story of how Democrats got to a unified national voter file is a strange and twisty one. Before 2007, every state Democratic Party had a separate voter file system. While there were agreements signed to periodically share data, the State Party’s voter file and the DNC’s voter file were not the same thing. During this time, fights between State Parties and candidates over voter file access were plentiful.
But in 2007, there was a bureaucratic development, which would turn out to have long-lasting implications. The vast majority of State Parties signed agreements to trade data back and forth with the DNC, and most critically, they both agreed to use one joint voter file system. This wasn’t merely because of better technology (though it was in part). It was because the state parties decided that while they would be giving up some power, they trusted the DNC to be stewards of the data. As the data director, I often complained that my job was a political one, getting state chairs on the phone and striking up a partnership.
This isn’t a story about how that one moment changed everything. It was a step among many others over the years, many of which involved the amazing work of the Obama data and analytics teams. This is a story about how the Democratic Party’s technological advantage is about more than tech, it’s about candidates and state parties trusting the national party. And it was this single fact, a unified database, and a somewhat unified party apparatus, which gave us a key advantage over Republicans.
It means that the stakes are higher than the political fight of the day between Bernie and Hillary. 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.
It’s hard for me not to sympathize with the impossible situation the DNC data team has been placed in. They must live up to a strict agreement, protect the sanctity of the data, and provide an immense amount of customer support. But now that we’re past the immediate crisis, it’s worthwhile for all parties to look towards ways to mend fences and build trust at every level.
It helped us win before and will be needed to win again.