Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pose before the start of a debate in Kendall, Florida, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/JAVIER GALEANO

Was the 2016 Democratic primary rigged? It depends on what your definition of the word “rigged” is — but a top campaign adviser to Bernie Sanders declared that after new revelations this past week, “it is unquestionably the case that the DNC was not neutral” during the contest.

That declaration came during an International Business Times podcast interview with Mark Longabaugh, the longtime Democratic operative who helped oversee Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Longabaugh was responding to accusations by former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile, who in a new book argues that a fundraising agreement between the party and the Hillary Clinton campaign “was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical.” That agreement, Brazile asserted, gave Clinton’s campaign undue influence over a party machinery that was supposed to not take sides in the 2016 primary.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Longabaugh said that the agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was no run-of-the-mill pact, but instead an unprecedented deal that was never offered to the Sanders campaign. He also, however, urged Sanders’ voters to not abandon the party but instead fight to take it over and change it from the inside.

Subscribers can click here to listen to the entire podcast interview. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion with Longabaugh.

Why do you think Donna Brazile’s recent revelations are important?

It's just more detail of what we already knew, which was that the Clinton campaign had a heavy hand at the DNC, if not outright control of the DNC. We had a chairwoman resign. A national chair resigned on the eve of the convention because it had become clear from the release of the emails that they clearly had a finger on the scales, whether it was with the way which they tilted the debates to benefit Clinton and not the insurgent candidates, whether it was stacking of standing committees, whether it was the joint fundraising agreement. I just think in the big picture, Donna's just put one more piece of evidence on the table that just demonstrates what we already knew.

Joint fundraising agreements are fairly standard. Why do you believe the one signed between the DNC and Clinton’s campaign is particularly noteworthy?

There has never been a joint fundraising agreement signed this early in the presidential process in the midst of the primary, unless we had [an incumbent] president. Obama established an early joint fundraising agreement, but that was clearly because he was president of the United States and had control of the party. Historically, the joint fundraising agreements like in 2008, were put together after the nomination process was over. What the party was doing here was new and extraordinary…

There are occasionally Senate-level and Congressional joint fundraising agreements that are put together. In terms of that sort of a technique, it's not particularly unique. But like I say, what was unique here was the way in which [the] DNC was signing these agreements early.

Hillary Clinton pledged to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up. But there have been allegations that the Clinton campaign used the joint fundraising committee to siphon money from state parties. What’s your take on that?

What really happened, which is what was the problem here, which was just in proportion. Clinton is able to, per this committee, to accept $2,700 per individual at a federal limit, to her federal committee. Each individual was writing $2,700 to the Clinton campaign. Then they were writing these $10,000 checks to all of the party committees...Historically, what would have happened is that the money would have been returned to all of those entities in the same amounts. So all of those 35 state parties would have gotten $10,000 from George Clooney. The DNC would have gotten a big chunk from George Clooney.

But what was happening here was because the Clinton campaign had control over this, and I don't remember the exact numbers, but a huge proportion of the money was immediately sent straight to Hillary for America, which was Hillary's campaign, and so it was out of proportion. Much larger checks should have been going back to the state parties and to the DNC; they were going to Clinton campaign…

There have been questions about whether the Clinton campaign had too much control of the DNC, which was supposed to be neutral in the primary. Did the joint fundraising agreement give Clinton operational control of the DNC?

As I understand it, the Memorandum of Agreement that they had and to be very frank about it, I have not read that entire document, so I want to be clear about that. That I understand it from press reports that she had control over the hiring and firing of communications director or other staff, and they had control over elements of the budget. The Memorandum of Agreement, in a large way, put Clinton in a pretty controlling position in the summer of 2015. I'm sympathetic to the point that the DNC was failing to raise money here, and that Clinton was basically trying to step in to prop up the DNC. Obviously, she used that as pretext to take control over aspects of the DNC.

I think the mistake here, on their part was, the failure was Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We had a chair who clearly was not doing her job. A chair who also had her finger on the scales for the Clinton campaign. I think what the Clinton campaign probably should have done here is talk to Debbie Wasserman Schultz about leaving that position and getting a chair in there that was both neutral and was going to do their job. They chose to attack the problem in a different direction and trying to control the DNC and trying to prop it up financially.

When this agreement was signed in 2015, was it fair for Clinton and DNC officials to presume that she would be the Democratic standard-bearer, and therefore put in place policies that threw away neutrality and treated her as the presumptive nominee?

Look, I don't deny that in the summer of 2015, the Clinton campaign probably thought Bernie Sanders was not a serious threat to the nomination. It wasn't until the fall, into the winter, as Bernie's campaign continued to gain steam, that they had to come around and reassess that situation. At one level, it doesn't surprise me that they were dismissive of us in the summer of 2015 and behaved in the ways that they did towards us in 2015.

Hillary Clinton addresses her staff and supporters after her election loss; New York, Nov. 9, 2016. Reuters

But I have to say, it is extraordinary, historically unprecedented for the DNC to behave in the manner in which it behaved over the course of this campaign in the midst of the Democratic primary. I mean it's just literally unprecedented. You can't go back to history and find any example ... I think I mentioned this earlier, these joint fundraising agreements, this went into effect in the midst of the primary. She was raising money for this joint fundraising committee. They were sending checks back to Hillary for America in the midst of the primary.

There was also the problem of the fact that she was taking these large checks, putting them into her fund, and then soliciting low-dollar donations with that money. As where Bernie Sanders had to raise every dime that he raised when we prospected for low-dollar donors, we had to do it with federal dollars raised under $2,700. It really was extraordinary what was going on here. It's never happened in the history of the party that I can think of.

What do you say to those who say even if there was a thumb on the scale at the DNC, Sanders ultimately lost by millions of votes, and therefore the primary outcome wasn’t actually “rigged.”

Number one, I think it's unquestionably the case that the DNC was not neutral. It was operating at the behest of Clinton and to her benefit. If you want to call that rigged, I guess the DNC was rigged. I think there were serious questions about the operations and the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. There were no headcounts in either place. There was nothing but chaos in both elections. The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party took upon herself to declare a winner in the middle of the night. There was never a recount. As I'm told, she didn't have all of the votes at hand.

There was a scathing editorial by the Des Moines Register a couple of days after the caucuses, pointing out the numerous flaws in the caucus process. Was that rigged? I don't know if it was rigged, but it was a pretty big mess...

Did we ultimately come up short on the vote? Yeah, we did. I mean, there was a set of primaries in the middle of March where we had to win them and we didn't. Would I say ultimately the election was rigged? No, I wouldn't. But I also think that this argument about she ended up winning the nomination doesn't excuse the behavior of the DNC. I mean the DNC as the Democratic National Committee is supposed to be neutral in the midst of a primary nominating campaign, and they clearly weren't here.

What do you believe are some examples of actions the DNC took that unfairly tilited the election to Clinton?

The debate schedule was clearly put together to the benefit of Clinton. Certainly it wasn't put together for the benefit of Bernie Sanders… There are emails out there that demonstrate that the Clinton campaign drafted a memorandum outlining the debates that they wanted. And they had spoken to the DNC about them and ultimately, that's what the debates look like. It was narrow in number, number one; number two, they were Saturday night debates as you may have remembered…there was a great deal of concern, at the time, that the Republicans were drawing huge numbers for their debates, and we were doing these debates on Saturday nights. One just a few weeks before Christmas...We getting very low cut audience on these things.

They then changed the debate schedule to the benefit of Clinton when she was behind in New Hampshire. We had agreed to a set of debates that was never supposed to be a New Hampshire debate the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, but they forced that upon us at the time… We then negotiated another series of debates, two of which ultimately came off in the final debate in California, which we had negotiated at the time, they just completely blew it off, because Clinton didn't want to debate again. From beginning to end, the debate schedule was totally geared to her benefit and it certainly wasn't to Bernie Sanders.

Moving forward, should Democratic voters conclude that their entire nominating process is rigged? And is anything being done to address the concerns you’ve raised?

I do think there were elements of the nominating process we ought to be concerned about. One of the positive things that's come out of this, one of the things we fought for at the convention was, as you know, a unity commission to look at the nominating process and the mix and reforms at the DNC. That commission passed unanimously through the convention...It's been in action over the course of this year. It's held four meetings I think at this point; three at least. It's going to come out with its final rules in December. I think it's going to come out with some important reforms.

Here's where I think the process was not right. I think the influence of superdelegates is simply an undemocratic element of the nominating process. These unelected delegates exist for no other reason other than to take a nomination away from someone who gets to the convention with more votes than the rest of the candidates. I mean I don't know what else the purpose of superdelegates would be for. I am very hopeful that the commission reduces the number of superdelegates, if not, gets rid of them completely. I think it's a very undemocratic element of our process...

I also think the caucuses in many states were a mess. They're poorly administrated. The Iowa and Nevada caucuses have gotten so big and so intense that the state parties just are not prepared to be able to take on the administration of these events...In the big picture, they just can't administer them is fundamentally the problem and that undermines our process.

I also think that if we want to win general elections, we need open primaries. The idea of winning independent voters in the primary process, I think is important. I think it draws those voters into the party, and it also demonstrates a candidate who has shown crossover appeal so that we're nominating the best candidate.

Do you believe Democrats have engaged in an honest autopsy of how they lost the election, and are they making changes to fix that for the next national election?

I've run campaigns and won campaigns and I've run campaigns and lost campaigns. I've tried not to point fingers at the Clinton campaign just in terms of mistakes that were made. I think those mistakes are pretty obvious. I do think there's been a fair airing out of what happened in that campaign and the mistakes that were made…What I fear is that despite that analysis, there are still elements of the Democratic Party who either aren't listening, or for a variety of reasons have decided to dig in their heels and stick with sort of a formula from the past. That's what's disappointing to me.

I think the way forward here is a pretty clear one. I mean, we have got to address kitchen table issues. We've got to have an economic agenda for the American people that are going to lift up folks that have been struggling for 20, 30, 40 years in this economy. If we don't do that, we're going to struggle to win elections. But we still have a wing of the party that is trimming sails and in the thrall of sort of the corporate Wall Street wing.

Supporters greet Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Carson, California, May 17, 2016. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Are you concerned that Sanders supporters will look at the DNC situation and disengage because they conclude that the party cannot be fixed?

I hope progressives and Bernie supporters will not exit the party. I think we live in a two-party system. I think it is vital that we fix what's broken with the Democratic Party. We badly, badly need the energy of Bernie activists inside of the Democratic Party to rebuild the Democratic Party. I think my advice or my argument to them would be, "Listen, we got to dig in and reform the Democratic Party. Don't abandon it. Let's fix it. Let's take it over and let's build a party in the image that you want," because I do think the country is moving in a more progressive direction. I think the issues that Bernie talked about in the campaign have only gotten stronger in terms of public opinion over time.

Medicare for all is certainly the case in terms of the kind of numbers that you see around a support for a single pair healthcare program today. Clearly, there's great appeal in the idea of free tuition for public colleges. I think the idea of a $15 minimum living wage has got great strength. There's a lot of power in these ideas. I think these ideas can both capture the Democratic Party and capture many of the voters that we lost in the last election and bring them back in…

Donald Trump's pollster was up at Harvard and actually said that they thought Bernie would have won that election. I do think that's the case, because I think Bernie had an economic agenda, a real agenda to address the concerns of average and working class, middle class and lower-income citizens who struggle every day. I think he had some real solutions. I think if we put those on the table, we can win again. I also think that the talent of many of the progressives that were part of Bernie's campaign is an energy that the Democratic Party badly, badly needs.