MANCHESTER, N.H. — The loudest day on the Democratic presidential campaign trail this cycle was one of the quietest for the team doing the actual work of getting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders votes in this, his strongest primary state.
That work was once again underway Saturday as the dust settles on an extraordinary 48 hours.
There wasn’t much Sanders field operatives could do Thursday and Friday after the Democratic National Committee suspended the campaign’s access to the party voter file. The file is the lifeblood of modern field campaigning: canvass lists, phone lists, and other voter contact efforts flow through it and are measured against it. Without it, there’s basically nothing.
“It looks like a lot of empty chairs,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager told BuzzFeed News when asked what a day without a voter file looks like. The campaign couldn’t do phone banks or canvassing. It couldn’t even send Sanders around to events to keep things moving during the voter file lockout because the file is used to alert people near where Sanders will be speaking and build crowds.
Volunteers were turned away, field efforts shut down. Staff scrambled to assemble jury-rigged backup systems using paper lists to get canvassers back on the street.
In New Hampshire, Sanders staff couldn’t “cut turf” — campaign lingo for creating canvass routes. That’s a big loss in a state where retail politics are still seen as the key to victory and where Sanders is trying to hold onto his one primary state lead over rival Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in polls. Staff worked through the night to create a functional analog version of the digital outreach operation run through the voter file. But no one expected that system to match what they had before.
“In a modern campaign, you can’t do anything,” Weaver said.
Online, Sanders’s grassroots army was in a state of disarray. Used to working closely with the campaign to push digital outreach and phonebanking from their homes, volunteers instead had to wait, or get by pushing some of the online petitions launched by progressives to protest the DNC.
A top official at a progressive group backing Sanders recalled one dismayed Sanders volunteer cold-calling his office, begging for a list of Iowans he could call.
“We don’t have those kinds of lists,” the official had to tell the volunteer.
Late Friday night, after furious negotiations with the Sanders camp, the DNC flipped the switch back on, and the data started flowing again early Saturday morning.
Weaver said Saturday afternoon that things were running at normal speed again, and in New Hampshire things were rolling at a breakneck pace.
Last weekend, the Sanders campaign conducted 250 total canvass shifts, according to a source familiar with the operation. On Saturday alone, the campaign conducted 130. All 15 of the campaign’s New Hampshire offices were open for business, and 40 volunteers were working phone banks.
The drudgery of campaigns — “cutting turf” is about as exciting as it sounds — are usually the real keys to victory. It remains to be seen what impact the period without full-tilt drudgery will have, Sanders aides told BuzzFeed News.
“We lost two days of operation,” Weaver said. “That makes a huge difference.”
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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