Last month, Politico published an excerpt from Hacks, former interim Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile’s tell-all book about the 2016 election. Brazile wrote that an agreement between the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign gave Clinton control of much of the party apparatus as early as August 2015, long before even the first caucus vote was cast.
Although Brazile has since tried to walk back some of her harshest criticism, her story actually missed one telling point: August 2015 wasn’t the month when the DNC started letting Clinton and her allies drive the bus. That came months earlier, when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), then the DNC chair, asked a handful of Clinton loyalists and establishment Democrats to help run the party’s election strategy.
The DNC relied on multiple consulting firms during the election, but the two most prominent — and highest paid — were Precision Strategies and SKDKnickerbocker. On Jan. 26, 2015, about three months before Clinton officially announced her candidacy, Precision received its first payment from the DNC for the 2016 election cycle. On May 19, 2015, SKDK — which had worked with the party, in various roles, for years — received its first payment of the cycle.
The DNC ultimately gave Precision and SKDK close to a million dollars over the course of the presidential race. Nearly $400,000 of that came during the primary, when Clinton was battling it out with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The DNC paid Precision $230,000 for political consulting between February 2016 and the end of the primary. It paid SKDK $150,000 for media consulting between May 2015 and the end of the primary. In October 2015, former top Clinton aide Mark Penn bought SKDK.
From the start, Sanders had fewer longtime allies at the heart of the Democratic establishment than Clinton did. That was part of his outsider appeal. But these consulting teams — which were coordinating strategic communications, media relations and research well before the party chose its nominee — included several established Democratic operatives who openly favored the former secretary of state. Many of them had a history with Clinton.
Precision co-founder Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a Barack Obama campaign veteran and former executive director of the DNC, was considered a likely Clinton campaign hire even before she was brought on to help with the party’s 2016 messaging. The New York Times reported in August 2015 that O’Malley Dillon was unofficially advising the Clinton campaign. The process behind her DNC hiring shows just how deeply the campaign was coordinating with the party — and the White House.
In late December 2014, Clinton aide (and later campaign manager) Robby Mook wrote to Clinton and other top aides to report on a conversation about O’Malley Dillon with David Simas, Obama’s White House political director.
“Debbie [Wasserman Schultz] and [DNC CEO] Amy [Dacey] are supportive of bringing someone in to fill a general election planning/preparation role,” Mook wrote to Clinton. “We agreed that Jen O’Malley Dillon would be a very strong candidate. She has the experience/relationships/gravitas to navigate the building. It’s also completely credible for the [White House] to say that she’s their pick. We agreed she should be our first choice for now unless we think of someone better.”
The two SKDK managing directors who worked most closely with the DNC were Anita Dunn, a former White House aide under Obama, and Hilary Rosen, a longtime recording industry lobbyist, occasional Capitol Hill staffer, and 2008 Clinton backer. The Clinton campaign listed both Dunn and Rosen as reliable surrogates in a memo written by communications director Jennifer Palmieri, which was circulated in a March 8, 2015, email chain.
Dunn told HuffPost that she didn’t know her name was on Palmieri’s list, saying that she had remained neutral prior to Clinton’s nomination, but would have worked for then-Vice President Joe Biden had he run. She also pointed out there were no monetary contributions to any campaigns in her name during that time.
Jon Reinish, SKDK’s senior vice president, also helped behind the scenes, acting as an envoy for Wasserman Schultz, whom he has described as a personal friend, and coordinating media strategy with her staff. Reinish had served on the host committee for a Ready for Hillary LGBTQ fundraiser in New York City in January 2015.
O’Malley Dillon, Dunn, Rosen and Reinish all appeared to take sides during the primary. None of them picked Sanders.
O’Malley Dillon endorsed Clinton on Twitter four days before the Iowa caucuses, sharing an article that portrayed some Sanders supporters as bullies.
Dunn, the Biden backer, helped set the Democratic primary debate schedule — a schedule that even the Clinton campaign acknowledged benefited their candidate.
Rosen and Reinish repeatedly attacked Sanders in the media and online. In October 2015, Rosen wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post savaging Sanders on LGBTQ rights. In January 2016, she gave an interview with the Post in which she criticized Sanders’ record on women’s rights. In April, she characterized his supporters as sexist bullies on CNN. After Sanders endorsed Wasserman Schultz’s own primary opponent, Rosen called the senator “a petty jerk” in an email with DNC communications director Luis Miranda.
Reinish wrote multiple articles in the New York Observer criticizing Sanders and spreading the narrative that his supporters were bullying women.
Precision Strategies did not respond to a request for comment, and SKDK maintains that its employees’ public support for Clinton was not material to their professional work for the DNC.
The extent to which each of the consultants the DNC hired influenced individual party messaging decisions is unclear. But what is clear is that throughout the primary, the DNC echoed Clinton’s campaign narratives, which centered around empowering women and elevating Donald Trump.
Three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Wasserman Schultz gave a lengthy interview to The New York Times in which she warned of “complacency among the generation of young women” — most of whom on the Democratic side preferred Sanders — “whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”
After Iowa, where Trump came in second to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sanders nearly tied Clinton, there was the New Hampshire primary. This time the two outsiders won, and on the Democratic side, Sanders went ahead in pledged delegates. Yet rather than pick up on the economic problems he and Trump were emphasizing, the DNC’s talking points highlighted the economic gains made during the Obama presidency, the common ground between the Democratic candidates, and the differences between them and their GOP counterparts.
Talking points for Wasserman Schultz after Clinton won primaries in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland, and Sanders won Rhode Island, featured an entire section dedicated to “The GOP’s Problem With Women” and “Dangerous Donald Trump.” There was nothing, however, on economic inequality. After Sanders’ subsequent victory in Indiana, little changed, save for the addition of one passing mention of the country’s economic divide.
A week later, following Sanders’ victory in West Virginia, even that limited acknowledgment of his campaign theme was gone. Trump had won Nebraska on the same day, and the DNC’s talking points placed considerable emphasis on the GOP front-runner’s history with and views on women. Discussion of economics was limited to the harm that Trump’s agenda could do if implemented.
In her email exchange with HuffPost, Dunn defended the party’s messaging decisions.
“Traditionally the DNC role during the primaries is to focus on the Republicans and to keep the focus on the Republican candidates while the Democratic candidates go through the process,” she wrote. “I think if you talk with people who have been through previous elections, they will tell you the DNC (and, for that matter, RNC) play this role during the primaries because the candidates are differentiating between each other and you need the national party to carry the campaign against the Republican during that period.”
Hillary Clinton was the Democratic establishment’s choice in the 2016 primary, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the DNC — a key part of that establishment — favored her throughout the primary. The question now is the extent to which that preference affected the outcome of the race — and what the party will do going forward to make its primary process more open and fair.
“If the Democratic Party is going to regain the public’s trust, it must remain neutral in accordance with its bylaws, and it can’t let its consultants take a side publicly during a primary,” Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, the political organization Sanders started after the election, told HuffPost. “They can’t serve two masters.”
Hillary Clinton, Amy Dacey, Jennifer Palmieri and Debbie Wasserman Schultz did not respond to requests for comment.
Eoin Higgins contributed reporting.