The DNC’s Leaked Emails Show It Had No Idea How to Rig an Election

Debbie downed.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Let me start with the obvious: Bernie Sanders’ supporters have every right to be royally pissed off about the revelations contained in the hacked Democratic National Committee emails that have been released by WikiLeaks. The correspondence shows party officials clearly preferred Hillary Clinton, were flip and condescending about Sanders, and occasionally plotted ways to hurt him in the media. This was unacceptable coming from an ostensibly neutral organization with a key role in the nominating process; it was also a tactically idiotic way to treat a candidate whose campaign was exciting millions of young voters. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is resigning as DNC chairwoman at the end of this week, deserves her downfall.

But there’s also something a little ironic about this scandal. Rather than proving that the primary was deviously rigged by Clinton’s cronies—as many Sandernistas clearly believe—the WikiLeaks emails suggest the opposite. The party didn’t seem to have very many ideas at all for meddling with Sanders’ candidacy. And the ones they cooked up were weak and quickly forgotten.

Consider the most damaging news to come out of the leak. One DNC official seems to have floated the concept of trying to make an issue of Sanders’ apparent atheism, in order to hurt his standing with Southern Baptists in states like Kentucky. This was a deeply offensive idea.1 It also seems to have gone nowhere. In May, meanwhile, the DNC national press secretary suggested “pushing a narrative” that Sanders “never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess.” This was meant to push back against the charge that there was a DNC conspiracy against against him in the first place. But in any event, as ABC News notes, the idea was quashed.

Other than that? Wassmerman Schulz called Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver a “damn liar” after he claimed there was no violence at Nevada’s state Democratic Party convention; some media outlets had reported that Sanders supporters threw chairs (there was controversy about whether that was true). Some radio host got called a Bernie Bro. Wasserman Schultz fulminated about how Sanders never understood the Democratic Party, because he was never part of it (which, until this election, was true). The committee coordinated with a Clinton campaign lawyer about how to respond after Sanders charged that the DNC had “laundered” money to Clinton—which is completely unremarkable, given that both groups were implicated in the allegation. DNC employees also planned to pass around an article critical of Sanders (mind you, an article that had already been published). In late May, after Sanders told CNN that Wasserman Schultz would not be reappointed DNC chair if he won the presidency, a DNC staffer wrote: “This is a silly story. Sanders isn’t going to be president.” Mean? Perhaps, but it was also pretty clearly true by then.

None of this is good, mind you. The emails create a vague sense of impropriety. But as the (useful) cliché now goes, it’s more Veep than House of Cards. We’re reading a bunch of cranky D.C. office drones dealing with and letting off some steam about a cantankerous campaign. And in at least one other email that has Sanders fans angry, the DNC actually seems to be worrying about heading off even the possible appearance of foul play. In that one, they fretted that Rhode Island, a state in which Bernie had a lead, was opening up only a limited number of polling places. “If she outperforms this polling,” one email read, “the Bernie camp will go nuts and allege misconduct.” The staffer suggested putting out an inquiry to Rhode Island’s governor, who is “one of ours”—which seems like another way of saying “a Democrat.”

Again, on balance, this is all a bad look for the DNC. But it’s not vote tampering. The worst ideas seem to have been scotched. It’s always possible the real malfeasance was plotted offline. But nothing has been found in the leaked batch of emails that rises to the level of “rigging.”

As of now, we know of one truly significant way in which the DNC seems to have aided Clinton. It planned relatively few debates and scheduled the early ones for weekends, when nobody would watch. The DNC denied it had done this to prevent Clinton’s opponents from getting exposure. But even at the time, this seemed like a pretty transparent attempt to “circle the wagons around the inevitable front-runner,” as then candidate Martin O’Malley put it. The WikiLeaks emails certainly don’t do anything to ease those concerns. In one, a DNC staffer wrote “lol” after Sanders prematurely announced that he and Clinton had agreed on an extra debate before the California primary (the event didn’t end up happening).

Did the paucity of debates really skew the election results? Sanders diehards will probably say so. Some have blamed Sanders’ poor performance in the South, which essentially lost him the nomination, on a lack of name recognition among black voters. It’s possible that a few more prime-time debate-nights might have helped erase that disadvantage. On the other hand, it’s possible they would have helped shore up support for Clinton, who reminded everybody during the campaign that she was a very formidable debater. Moreover, there were many problems with Sanders’ efforts to court black voters, including what may have been a deadly hamfistedness with retail politicking. Even if you believe that the Wikileaks emails suggest the DNC wanted to put its thumb on the scale during the primary through the debate schedule, it’s hard to tell how decisive or meaningful that effort really was.

Aside from the debates, the major allegations about DNC favoritism involved Clinton’s joint fundraising efforts with the DNC (Sanders inked a deal to do something similar, but never took advantage of it) and a scuffle over access to voter data that Sanders and the DNC eventually resolved. At this point, the WikiLeaks emails don’t add anything to that dossier. They show the DNC lacked the respect for Sanders that his campaign had earned, but not that it stole his nomination.

1Why on earth would the Democratic Party contemplate alienating secular Jews, one of their most reliable, albeit small, constituencies?

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.