Just in time for Saturday night’s debate, the Democratic presidential race is being jolted by another computer-related scandal.
The imbroglio over Bernie Sanders’ aides gaining unauthorized access to Hillary Clinton’s proprietary voter files — with the Democratic National Committee sharply rebuking Sanders’ camp — could make the 8 p.m. ET debate much more personal than two earlier bouts between the two and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The debate comes with Clinton in a dominant position after she survived House Republicans’ inquiries into her private email use during a hearing on the Benghazi attacks and Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to make a late entry in the race. Sanders is fading from his summer high, struggling to broaden his appeal in a campaign increasingly focused on foreign policy, and O’Malley has failed to break out of the low single digits.
The timing seems unlikely to help Sanders, whose campaign is irked that the DNC slated it for a Saturday night, when viewership is lower than the weeknight bouts that have drawn massive audiences to the Republican debates.
Clinton, a 2-to-1 front-runner in most national polls, has largely avoided punching down at Sanders throughout the campaign, rarely mentioning him at campaign events and taking carefully calibrated swings at him on issues like gun control.
But the data breach has left Clinton with a decision: give Sanders a pass, as he did with her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, or tear into the Vermont senator over it during the debate, which takes place in New Hampshire and will air nationally on ABC.
If Clinton does attack, Sanders could try to turn his response into an effective broadside against the entire Democratic establishment — after Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, accused the DNC of tipping the scales in favor of Clinton.
Sanders’ campaign seized on a glitch in a DNC-housed program to access Hillary Clinton’s proprietary data on early-state voters this week. In response, the DNC locked Sanders out of all voter data, including information gathered by his own campaign. So Sanders retaliated with a lawsuit seeking $600,000 per day. The two sides announced a settlement in the wee hours of Saturday morning, with Sanders’ access restored.
Clinton’s campaign sent signals Friday that the daggers are out.
Campaign manager Robby Mook called Sanders’ team’s actions “incredibly disappointing” on a call with reporters, playing up the significance of what Sanders’ campaign had accessed.
“This was a very egregious breach and our data was stolen. This was not an inadvertent glimpse into our data,” Mook said.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon similarly lashed into Sanders on CNN, saying the senator’s campaign acted “like kids in a candy store and “went hog wild” downloading data.
And in a possible signal of what’s to come during the debate, Clinton’s campaign on Saturday attempted to drum up focus on the data breach story by publishing an open letter to the Sanders campaign that directs four questions at the senator.
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communication director, says that while the data breach has been “disturbing to our campaign and the volunteers who worked hard to build a strong organization,” it has also been “a distraction from the issues that the American people care about.”
Palmieri then goes on to ask why the campaign said they didn’t store any data, despite logs showing that they may have, and why the campaign claimed the breach “was an accident” when the Sanders aides “conducted 25 targeted searches” within the Clinton data.
Comparing reaction to data access, Clinton emails
The Sanders campaign, for its part, has pinned blame on the DNC for the data’s accessibility. It has fired one aide, but has also accused national Democrats of overreacting.
“The failings of one or three or four young people who have made misjudgments in campaign is not cause for them to issue a death penalty on the Sanders campaign,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver told Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
However, hours before Saturday night’s debate, Weaver told CNN not to expect the same fire from the senator.
“He is a very issue-oriented candidate. Always has been, always will be,” Weaver said. “He will, given the opportunity, talk about the substantive issues facing middle class and working-class people. Period. That is what he will do.”
He did add, though, “Now, if the issue is raised, I think what he will say is that the DNC dropped the firewall between the candidates, some young staffers on our campaign, inappropriately took advantage of that and may have looked at some Clinton data. One of them has been fired, others are being investigated. There may be more discipline handed out to employees as a result.”
Weaver stressed, “There is no one saying what they did is not wrong; it was wrong and we have taken it seriously. We have been investigating it and we will deal with it.”
When asked whether Sanders will echo Weaver when he said the DNC “gave our campaign the death sentence” by shutting off voter file access, Weaver responded, “No.”
The Clinton campaign’s criticism of Sanders’ team, meanwhile, is starkly different from how Sanders has handled Clinton’s use of a personal email address on a private server during her four-year tenure as America’s top diplomat.
Sanders said during the first Democratic debate that the American people are “are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails” — a line that won applause in the moment but diminished his ability to criticize Clinton on an issue that had hampered her campaign for months.
Republicans have repeatedly seized on the issue to assail the Democratic front-runner as untrustworthy, and have redoubled their criticism as the FBI reviews whether any classified information was mishandled.
Sanders challenges party establishment
But the dust-up over the DNC data breach could give Sanders new openings.
His campaign’s relationship with the party establishment has always been strained — and spats such as Sanders’ criticism of the DNC’s limited debate schedule, which Clinton’s challengers view as designed to shield the front-runner, have spilled into the open.
That powder keg of resentment has been ignited.
The timing of the debate could bolster Sanders’ argument. It’s the second Democratic debate to be held on a Saturday night, with the audience likely to be smaller than the viewership that would tune in on a weeknight, when Republicans have so far held their debates.
The debate comes as the 2016 race’s focus increasingly shifts toward national security and terrorism in the wake of the attacks in Paris and California planned or inspired by ISIS.
Sanders’ campaign has focused largely on the issue of income inequality — with Sanders latching Clinton to Wall Street and influential donors.
While Clinton has maintained her large lead nationally, Sanders’ message has resonated in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — which are both whiter and more liberal than the broader Democratic electorate.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll put Clinton ahead there by just nine percentage points — with 48% to Sanders’ 39% and O’Malley’s 4% — earlier this month.
In New Hampshire, Sanders has at times led. An early December CNN/WMUR poll showed him with 50% support to Clinton’s 40% and O’Malley’s 1%.
The debate is the best opportunity for Clinton’s rivals to chip into her lead before campaigns slow for the holiday season. But one more Democratic debate is scheduled before any votes are cast in Iowa. It’s set for January 17 in South Carolina.