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Fallout From Democratic Data Breach Continues

Neither campaign is quite ready to let the issue go.
Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In New Hampshire
Democratic president candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate at Saint Anselm College December 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. This is the third Democratic debate featuring Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

While the initial crisis has been resolved, there’s still more fallout to come from the data breach that rocked the Democratic primary last week. In addition a yet-to-begin investigation and a still-pending lawsuit, the repercussions could cause lasting damage to the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and especially Bernie Sanders.

Sanders apologized to Clinton during Saturday night’s debate after rogue officials with his campaign improperly accessed proprietary Clinton data on a shared system administered by the Democratic National Committee. The apology, along with the DNC’s decision to reinstate the Sanders campaign’s access to the data system, which had been cut off following the breach, calmed initial tensions.

But neither campaign is quite ready to let the issue go.

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“We appreciated Sen. Sanders’ apology for the breach of our data at Saturday’s debate, but in the two days since, his campaign has continued to raise the possibility that our campaign may have engaged in similar misconduct,” said Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon. “The Sanders campaign needs to immediately stop spreading this utterly false innuendo.”

Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign is still determined to keep up pressure on the DNC, which it feels unfairly cut off their access to crucial voter data and ignored a separate data breach in October. “We hope the Clinton campaign will join us in calling for a thorough, independent investigation starting from Day One in the campaign to review all possible data security failures that may have occurred at the DNC,” Sanders spokesperson Michael Briggs said Monday evening.

Sanders officials have yet to withdraw the lawsuit they filed in federal court Friday against the DNC, and it’s unclear when they might. They’re also in the process of determining whether their campaign still has any proprietary Clinton data.

Still to come is an independent investigation of the breach, which will likely include interviews with Sanders staffers and a review of their emails. The probe by an outside firm could take weeks to complete and has the potential to reveal damaging new information that could re-ignite tensions.

But even as the issue simmers in the public, the more lasting effects are likely to play out behind the scenes.

For Clinton, the data the Sanders aides accessed includes what Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called “the fundamental keys of our campaign.” He said it took millions of dollars and thousands of person-hours to assemble, and could reveal secret aspects of their strategy. Even if the Sanders campaign was never able to save any of the data, the staffers who saw that data can’t unsee it, forcing the Clinton campaign to operate under the assumption that at least some of the information was compromised.

The impact is likely even bigger for Sanders, who was forced to cripple one of his most important departments by firing his top data staffer and suspending two others. More suspensions or terminations are likely, according to aides.

These are critical functions performed by people with highly specialized skills and institutional memory who will be difficult to replace – especially with less than six weeks until the Iowa caucuses.

“I think it is fairly devastating,” said Michael Simon, a Democratic data consultant who ran the 2008 Obama campaign’s analytics operation. “I can’t imagine a worse thing happening from a personnel point of view … He didn’t necessarily have the strongest operation anyway, and now it’s sort of been hacked off by the knees.”

Many operatives in the highly coveted data field are already locked into jobs for the rest of the election cycle, and some may be reluctant to work for a rival to Clinton, who is expected to wind up as the party’s nominee. One unaligned Democratic consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity said he heard rebuttals from three Clinton aides shortly after tweeting something perceived as favoring Sanders’ interpretation of breach.

“For the Sanders campaign to experience a need like this for a top level technical talent this close to the election puts them in a difficult spot,” said Ethan Roeder, the Obama campaign’s director of data in 2012. “There are already more jobs for people to do political data work than there are people to do those jobs.”

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver acknowledged the challenge, but said letting staffers go was the right move. “It’s never quote-unquote convenient to have people leave right before an election, but we’re committed to doing the right thing regardless of the harm,” he said.

He said other staffers will work double or triple duty until they can fill the vacuum, but he insisted that the human capital loss pales in comparison to the temporary data loss that occurred when the DNC shut off their access. “The time between now and the first caucus was shorted by two days for us,” he said.

With their voter file dark, Sanders campaign officials scrambled to salvage one of the last 45 or so days before voters participate in the first contest on Feb. 1. Sanders organizers in Iowa resorted to canvassing lines for the new ‘Star Wars” movie while some in New Hampshire prepared to use old lists of people they had already called.

The breach has underscored how important data is for modern campaigns. Simon compared data to the plumbing and electricity of a house. Roeder compared losing access to data to a smart-phone dependent person losing their iPhone.

“A modern campaign is just a data exercise. Everything they do, whether it’s activity online, or activity offline, like knocking on doors and making phone calls, all the things that campaigns traditionally do, they’re basically making a data set. That’s it,” said Simon.

Effective use of data is critical to any campaign, and Sanders’ loss of time talent could have meaningful, if marginal impact on voter turnout. And in a close race a marginal impact on turnout could have a major impact.

More broadly, the breach has led many Democratic data officials, regardless of which candidate they support, to question the security of the party’s current data scheme, which is almost entirely dependent on a single vendor. The breach could undermine trust in the DNC and the vendor for a long time to come.