Cardin v. Bongino v. Sobhani – Will Rob Sobhani be included in the debates?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ben Cardin is the Maryland incumbent US Senator, a Democrat, running for re-election. Dan Bonginio is his Repubican challenger. Rob Sobhani is an Independent, the only one of the three running television ads, since Labor Day. Cardin’s campaign is very well funded. He was in the House for 20 years before moving to the Senate six years ago. Bongino, on the other hand, is a political newcomer with very limited funds, too limited to run an effective statewide campaign. Rob Sobhini, who ran for the Senate as a Republican in 1992 and 2000, is an experienced candidate and successful businessman who has money, maybe enough to mount a credible challenge to Ben Cardin. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible that he (with Dan Bongino’s help?) can pull the default vote out from under Ben Cardin. Two-thirds of Maryland voters are Democrats who tend to vote for their party’s standard-bearer.

The question is, will Rob Sobhani be included in the one or more debates that the two major party candidates agree to hold? Understandably, Ben Cardin doesn’t want Rob Sobhani sharing the stage with him. Why risk his default majority vote? Ben Cardin doesn’t think for a minute that he can lose to Dan Bongino in a one-against-one campaign. Neither do I. Dan doesn’t have the experience, personal or as a candidate, nor does he have the money to beat an incumbent Democrat.

For Dan Bongino, it’s a more complicated issue. If Dan thinks Rob Sobhani will take votes from Cardin, without stealing Republican votes from his campaign, then that’s a good thing. On the other hand, if Rob Sobhani pulls Republican votes as well, that’ll hurt. I’m guessing the Bongino campaign doesn’t take any chances and agrees with the Cardin campaign that it’s better to shut Rob Sobhani out.

How can they get away with that? How can they just tell a viable candidate to butt out? Whatever happened to the concept of “equal time” when the debates will be covered by FCC licensed television and radio stations? The simple answer is that the equal time provisions of federal law cannot be used to force the electronic media to let everyone running for office participate, regardless of party affiliation or public support. Debates are considered news events that the media can cover or not and, I agree, would be meaningless if the stage were over-crowded.

But wait. It’s not that simple. To quote from the Broadcast Law Blog,

Political debates have been considered, in recent years, as being exempt from equal opportunities as on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event, even if the station itself is organizing the debate. But, as we have written before (here and here), the decision as to which candidates to include must be made based on some defined standards to judge the newsworthiness of candidates, basing the decision on meeting some pre-defined standing in the polls or some other defined criteria other than party affiliation – and can’t be used to exclude independent or minor party candidates just because the station only wants to include the major parties.

The bolding is my doing.

There’s a statewide poll coming out this week that was conducted, by a well-respected pollster, after Rob Sobhani started running his television ads. I suspect that it will show significant minority support for Dr. Sobhani – He has a Ph.D. in Political Economy. – and could, conceivably, show him in second place behind Ben Cardin. In light of that poll and other, common sense indicators of potential voter support, I think Sobhani campaign attorneys need to go after any television or radio station that plans to cover a Senatorial candidate debate that doesn’t include their client – regardless of what Ben Cardin and Dan Bongino think is in their best interests. It is, after all, only the voters’ best interests that count.

-Next Contestant

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