Cardin v. Bongino v. Sobhani – How do you beat an incumbent in a 3-way race?

Monday, September 17, 2012

If it seems like there’s one too many names in the title, you’re right.

Ben Cardin is the incumbent Senator from Maryland who is running for re-election. He’s just finishing his first term in the Senate after having spent 20 years in the House. Senator Cardin, in my studied opinion, is the poster boy for do-nothing elected officials, having failed to address any of the economic, fiscal and other crises our country is facing. Perhaps he’s been too busy raising millions from special interests whose contributions are documented in his FEC filings.

The one thing he is good at is voting his party’s line. Even so, he’s likely to win in a walk. Why? Because he’s the incumbent and very well known, while his opponents are not. Because his campaign is very well funded, while his opponents’ campaigns are not. And because he’s the Democrat in a state where voter registration favors Democrats two to one.

But then the economy sucks. “Who in their right mind would vote to re-elect a Senator who rubber-stamped every misdirected or failed recovery program President Obama proposed, without offering a single creative idea of his own?” It’s the question Republican Dan Bongino must have asked himself when he decided to leave a career Secret Service position to run for and win the Republican nomination. His general election strategy? Energize his base. Get every Republican to vote for him. That’s a third of the vote. All he has to do then is convince 25.5% of the other voters, mostly Democrats, plus one, to vote for him and he wins. (Round numbers, 25.5% of two-thirds of the voters, plus 100% of one third of the voters, plus one gives Dan Bongino a 50% plus one vote victory.)

Piece of cake? Of course not. Mr. Bongino is inexperienced, having never run for office before, and way under-funded given what he’s up against. Can he beat Cardin? It’s possible, but not likely. It would help if Mitt Romney was running a more effective campaign, if President Obama’s remarkably poor performance, particularly with respect to economic and fiscal issues, was reflected in the polls but, unbelievably, the President is currently running ahead.

“Rats!” (I said that, not Dan Bongino, for dramatic effect.) Dan Bongino was already facing an uphill fight, and now here comes a prominent third candidate, Rob Sobhani, who tried twice before to be the Republican candidate for the Senate and is now running as a registered Independent. And he’s apparently better funded than Dan Bongino, judging from the television commercials Mr. Sobhani is now running. None so far from Bongino campaign that’s got to be worried about Rob Sobhani taking Republican and other votes away from its candidate. Is the math of Dan Bongino’s path to victory falling apart, the victim of a three way race? Quite possibly, but that’s not the question this article is asking.

The question is, how does Rob Sobhani expect to win? He needs at least 34% of the vote. At least 34%, and that’s assuming everyone not voting for him splits their votes between Cardin and Bongino. Put another way, he needs between 34% and 51% of the vote to beat Ben Cardin. And Sobhani is an unaffiliated Independent. He’s not getting money from any of the party PACs. So how does he, or anyone in his position, figure to win this?

Let’s start with the negative. What Rob Sobhani shouldn’t do is design his campaign to make this a two person race by arguing that he, not Bongino, is the alternative to Cardin – or worse, just waste his time talking about himself without mentioning his competition. No. There’s no way Independent Rob Sobhani gets 51% of the vote in a two person race against Ben Cardin, and selling himself without pointing out the negatives of his Democrat and Republican opponents doesn’t give voters the reasons they need not to vote for the other guys.

It may be counter-intuitive, but Rob Sobhani has got to go out of his way to make this an honest-to-goodness three person race so that he can win with a percentage of the vote as close to 34% as possible. He’s got to resist the temptation to only run against the incumbent, in favor of explicitly campaigning against both the incumbent and his Republican challenger. The point is, Sobhani needs Bongino to do well, not too well, but good enough to reduce Cardin’s vote count to a level low enough that he, Rob Sobhani, can beat. So how does he do that?

He does it by making the point that neither Cardin nor Bongino are qualified candidates.

1. Argue that, of the three, he is the only competent option. Cardin has proven himself to be useless, and Dan Bongino is unprepared for the job. Sobhani, on the other hand, has a Ph.D. in Political Economy and is a seasoned businessman with all sorts of relevant experience and expertise. Problem: Rob Sobhani is a nice guy, maybe too nice to go after his opponents, even in a professional, academic, matter-of-fact way. It’s a personality issue he needs to get over in a hurry.

2. Leverage public distaste for all things “Congress.” Nobody likes Congress. Voters view Democrats and Republicans in Washington with equal distain. While Sobhani used to be a Republican, he’s a bona fide Independent now. Republican Dan Bongino says he’s running as an outsider, but he’s a newbie and is going to be caught up in Republican party Senatorial politics just like the next guy. He may have never held office before, but he’s still a Republican and they’re half the reason Congress has been so unproductive. By comparison, Rob Sobhani really is an outsider, a point he needs to use to his advantage.

3. Offer specific, Maryland-focused recovery programs. Specific programs aimed at reducing unemployment and improving business in Maryland will sharpen the contrast between Sobhani and his opponents, especially Cardin, whose campaign rhetoric is trite and superficial. In fact, Rob Sobhani is already doing this, but with a five point plan that makes him sound more like a candidate for Governor than Senator.

Why can’t Dan Bongino employ the same strategy? Because neither he nor Ben Cardin want to create any buzz about Rob Sobhani by campaigning against him. They don’t even want Rob Sobhani included in the one debate they may have. And because Dan Bongino is the Republican candidate. It’s Rob Sobhani’s great advantage that he’s an Independent, in an era when voter appreciation of both parties in Congress is at record lows.

Step 1. Rob Sobhani’s needs to raise enough money to run television commercials to make sure people know his name. Check. The commercials should increase his standing in the polls, but to what extent?

Step 2. He’s got to commission a poll to understand where he and his opponents stand and to help focus his campaign activities where they will be most effective. It won’t be cheap, but smart geographic sampling design will help keep the costs down.

Step 3. Make sure he’s included in the debate, based on his poll results if necessary, even if it means releasing those results when he’d prefer not to.

Step 4. Campaign his tush off with new television commercials and other initiatives that expressly go after both his opponents, by name, mostly Senator Cardin, but also Dan Bongino.

Sure thing? Of course not but, the closer he can get to having Senator Cardin and Dan Bongino split two-thirds of the vote, the more likely it is that Rob Sobhani will be Maryland’s newest US Senator.

-Next Contestant

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