December 18, 2015
Tomorrow the Democrats debate. 8pm (Eastern) from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire (a frequent location) on ABC. It’s their third tilt, the second on a Saturday night when voters are less likely to tune in. The last debate of 2015, there is still one more in mid-January before voting begins.
There are three podiums and two candidates. Martin O’Malley is joining the debate, but hasn’t yet participated in the race. He’s in low-mid single digits in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally, a difficult feat when there are only two other options.
His previous two performances don’t lead one to expect he will change a whole lot of minds tomorrow night. The majority of O’Malley’s impact rests on whether he spends more time targeting Bernie Sanders as the Hillary alternative in his way, or Clinton herself as the front runner. It’s the extra variable in what is otherwise a two-person debate.
One extra bit of drama developed today. The Democratic National Committee keeps a master list of likely Democratic voters. Individual campaigns are able to access this DNC data and further refine it for use in targeting prospects, whether by phone, physical canvass or otherwise.
A third-party provider is responsible for managing this valuable data. They’ve had a couple of issues along the way, where the firewalls set up to separate Clinton data from Sanders data (for example) were temporarily absent.
Apparently, the Sanders campaign previously notified the DNC of this security risk/breach, but it happened again on Wednesday during a system upgrade. This time, a few campaign staffers took advantage of the opportunity to look around, accessing Clinton data.
Up to four people looked at things they shouldn’t have, and the guy in charge was fired today. The campaign claims it does not currently possess any downloaded information. If you leave the story here, it’s not that big of a deal, beyond pointing out the risks of centrally coordinated data without proper security precautions.
Shockingly, political staffers tried to take advantage of an open door to spy. Go figure. Meanwhile, Republicans can chuckle about what happens when you centrally control things. Bernie acted quickly to fire the offending manager. There’s an old saying that politics isn’t beanbag. Next.
Except the DNC is treating this as a capital offense. The Sanders campaign is now banned from accessing their data until the completion of an investigation to determine the degree of damage, how it happened, verify no data is currently still in their possession, etc.
For months, the Democrats have seemed far more united than the GOP. Most Dem voters give both Bernie and Hillary high favorability marks. Both debates were very civil. Sanders effectively gave Clinton a free pass on the emails. Bernie attacks the 1%, Hillary attacks Republicans. O’Malley does whatever he does in silence.
That stasis was favorable to Hillary. She’s ahead. By a bit in Iowa and a lot nationwide. Though Bernie has a narrow lead in New Hampshire, that in itself is not enough to create national horse race interest. With Trumpapalooza on the other side, the media has ignored the Democrats.
When they do get press, it’s Hillary firing back against something Trump said and tying other GOP candidates to The Donald’s flammable coattails. With most Democrats at least ok with her, an air of inevitability can only help. Voters who like both will fall in line, Sanders-supporting Independents and first-time voters have less reason to show up.
The lack of exposure and noticeable forward progress can also impact the enthusiasm and optimism of the volunteer squad Bernie is counting on to influence undecideds, partially-decideds, and less than sure to turn out voters.
Unpaid workers for an insurgent campaign thrive on momentum. Prior to the data blowup, I was already planning to argue Bernie needed to use the debate to fire the troops up. Now, the DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz have fired them up, but they don’t have any data to use.
The Sanders campaign wants the DNC to feel the Bern. They are planning/attempting a legal injunction in Federal court to restore access. They’re also getting loud about bias. The DNC has favored Hillary throughout the process.
It’s not customary for the national party to put their finger so heavily on the scale, but given the amount of official endorsements Clinton has received from state and national elected officials, the conditions are different this time. Wasserman Schultz is a known Hillary supporter.
Unlike the RNC’s Reince Priebus, who often seems like his primary concern is to de-escalate conflict, the DNC chief was all over the airwaves this afternoon to make her case, pushing back strongly against the Sanders campaign.
This changes the equation a bit for the debate. Bernie really needs to restore access to the data ASAP. They were lagging a bit in getting themselves completely organized. While missing out on making calls in October may not have mattered that much, now it does.
Beyond being significantly closer to voting day in Iowa now, reaching voters in late December, early January also increases the chance of Bernie polling better, which will encourage volunteers, encourage turnout, and encourage wavering voters that he has at least a semi-legit chance of winning.
He needs to continue proceeding on the legal track in case the DNC won’t budge, but needs to push the DNC in case he loses in court. All the while, Sanders can’t whine too aggressively, or risk losing voters who are already questioning his true viability.
The way to accomplish this, if Bernie is capable, is confident, assumptive defiance. Properly executed, the data disaster is an opportunity. As we know, Hillary is and was favored to win the nomination. This isn’t because Sanders has no hope or path, but because he needs so many things to fall into place, while she can afford many mistakes.
At his best, Sanders combines the left-wing version of Trump, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. His Trump side is the completely unconventional, loud, not even trying to be like a normal politician candidate. It appeals to voters seeking authenticity who assume establishment choices are lying and won’t get anything done.
Cruz is resolutely and regularly conservative. Even if you think he’s opportunistic about it, he would still challenge Barry Goldwater as the most conservative nominee in American history. Likewise, Sanders would at a minimum have an argument as most progressive.
Like Paul, Bernie has a bit of a libertarian side, the one that is willing to leave some gun regulation to the states and is in favor of legalizing marijuana. The second of those two is very helpful for his voter base.
The three GOP candidates provide him with a few lessons to apply tomorrow night. Trump sometimes attempts to act with some normalcy, but when his back is against the wall, or the campaign is at an inflection point, he does not.
This helps him control the political debate between formal debates and takes some of the pressure off during the official ones. In contrast, for several months, Paul tried to straddle the line between insurgent and traditional candidate and wound up satisfying nobody.
It’s time for the Full Bern. No sense sanding down any edges, moderating any behavior. He shouldn’t whine, but shouldn’t let up or tone down either.
Cruz and Paul acted as a tag-team against Marco Rubio on Tuesday, linking him to the policies of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. For less-interventionist Republicans (of whom there are many), this was effective. It also served the unconventional Trump pretty well, though he wasn’t party to the exchange.
Bernie has a similar opportunity to link Hillary’s foreign policy positions to that of Rubio and other GOP hawks. While only some Republicans are against intervention, most Democrats are at least highly skeptical. By an almost 4 to 1 margin, Dem voters still view Hillary’s pro-Iraq War vote as a problem.
Anything Sanders can do to tie her to the GOP foreign policy establishment is a plus, and there is more than enough for him to work with. The largest gap between the two candidates is on Commander-in-Chief type issues.
Hillary has her biggest edge here, despite a limited number of things Democrats can point to where her votes or actions as secretary are all that in line with what they believe in today. However, she’s very comfortable and confident talking about foreign policy and worked for a president most Democrats still like.
If he directly criticizes her competence and strategy, he’s both attacking a popular candidate and implicitly attacking a popular president who is under siege by Republicans. Saying she’s not that different from a Republican is entirely different.
When Bernie is pressed on how he would handle ISIS, there are several points he can make, some progressive, some almost Paullist. He recently toured inner-city Baltimore and was criticized for wanting reporters to focus questions on the topic at hand instead of ISIS.
While Americans are very concerned about terrorism, Democrats rank this lower than Republicans do. Baltimore murders for the year are now up to 329, more than double the combined Paris and San Bernardino terror death toll. The majority of victims are African-Americans.
Sanders can very reasonably argue this matters too. A country that is weak at home can’t easily defend itself abroad, something that ties in to his overall critique on how things currently are. Being unapologetic about the link between foreign and domestic policy creates more space between the candidates and increases the odds he’ll get a little media attention.
Another application is to argue the importance of rallying the country in a time of crisis. He can point out a coherent philosophy, one that defends Americans both physically and economically is a better foundation for building consensus than bouncing around ideologically.
Anyway, there’s more than enough for him to work with. Even if audience levels are relatively low, he still has the ability to frame things going forward for the next week or three and make Hillary adjust. We’ll see how much of this Bernie does, but his troops are fired up and ready to go. He just needs to give them the strategic map.