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Updated Oct 3, 2023, 6:44pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Who’s afraid of an RFK Jr. independent run?

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The News

In six days, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will come to Philadelphia to “make a major announcement at the very birthplace of our nation.” Every indication is that he’ll quit the Democratic primary, which he’s called “rigged,” to run for president as an independent or third party candidate.

Democrats, who worry about many things, don’t sound too worried about this.

“A couple of years ago, if you’d told me that someone named Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was running for president as an independent, I’d have said that it would really hurt the Democratic ticket,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat whose district covers the historic square where Kennedy will speak. “But RFK Jr. has such an odd mix of views, on a whole host of conspiracy theories, that he’s more appealing to far-right, libertarian sort of voters. I think he’s more likely to hurt Donald Trump than Joe Biden.”

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Kennedy, whose early support surprised and panicked Democrats, has flatlined in primary polling since mid-summer. Last month, ahead of a Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington, he accused the party of making it impossible for him to beat Biden, and began telling friendly interviewers that he might have to bolt the party he’d belonged to his whole life.

“If the Democrats make rules that say I cannot win, and then they complain about me running somewhere else, it’s like a guy who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan,” Kennedy told podcaster Theo Von last week. “They’re trying to get public sympathy for the problem they created.”

Kennedy suggested that the party’s superdelegates and primary state rules could deny him the nomination. He had a deeper problem with Democratic voters: They couldn’t stand him, seeing him as a vaccine-skeptical, Ukraine-surrendering interloper who was running to weaken the president. Hours of interviews with new media outlets have made him more popular with Republicans and independents, while alienating Democrats.

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In last month’s CNN/UNH poll, 73% of likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire held an “unfavorable” view of Kennedy, compared to just 9% who viewed him favorably. The president wasn’t competing in New Hampshire — the DNC’s reshuffle of the primary calendar put South Carolina first, over bipartisan objections in the Granite State — but the same poll showed him crushing Kennedy as a write-in option.

“In New Hampshire, Kennedy has zero appeal with Democrats and Democratic leaning independents,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley. “His negatives are through the roof. His appeal seems to be to MAGAs and other like-minded right-wing extremists.”

Six months after entering the race, Kennedy had been endorsed by just one elected Democrat: New York City councilman Jim Gennaro. He told Semafor that he’d stick with the candidate if he went third party, seeing him as “the best person to be president,” and a bulwark against radicalism.

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“There’s a chasm between the ivory tower Democrats and the Democrats who do most of the working, the living, and the dying in this country,” Gennaro said.

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David’s view

Democrats live in constant fear of a third party candidate complicating the president’s re-election. They’ve never gotten over 2000 and 2016, when strong Green Party candidates got more votes in key states than the margins of defeat for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. They’re nervous that Cornel West, the favorite for next year’s GP nomination, could do the same; they’re outright terrified that No Labels could put a moderate on the 2024 ballot, siphoning off potential Biden votes.

“Trump only wins with a third party in the race; he benefits from any of them,” said Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of public affairs at Third Way, which has been on an anti-No Labels mission all year. “There are no reluctant Trump voters, but in a two-way race, there are plenty for Biden.”

Fueling that worry: Many voters are sick at the thought of a Biden-Trump rematch. The electoral landscape looks more like 2016, when both party nominees were unpopular, than 2020, when most voters went to the polls with a warm view of Biden.

In polling that Gallup will release tomorrow, shared first with Semafor, just 34% of adults agreed that the two major parties “do an adequate job of representing the American people.” Sixty-three percent said that a “third party” was needed, the highest level of support for the idea in the 20-year history of the question.

But in 2016, 61% of Americans shared that third party dream — and just 6% of them voted for someone besides Trump or Clinton. And Kennedy and his allies, stoking interest in his Monday announcement, have downplayed his ability to spoil an election for Biden.

“I take more votes from President Trump than I do from President Biden,” Kennedy told Von. “It’s not helping them.”

American Values 2024, the pro-Kennedy super PAC largely funded by Republicans, amplified that take with three-way polling conducted by Zogby Strategies — Trump and Biden tied, Kennedy took 19% of the vote. The People’s Party, founded in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary loss, put out its own polling from YouGov that put Kennedy at 17%, “drawing equally from Democrats and Republicans,” with no effect on the Biden-Trump matchup.

When I talked with officials in swing states, where the election will actually be fought, I heard more worry from Republicans than Democrats.

“RFK Jr appeals most to the conspiracy-theory wing of the GOP—to the point where Ron Johnson has been flogging his book on right-wing talk radio,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Ben Wikler. “He’d be a great option for Republicans afraid that Trump is too pro-vaccine.”

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Room for Disagreement

It’s possible Democrats are a little too quick to assume a Kennedy third party bid would be different from others that have dragged down their nominees. Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini’s firm, Echelon Insights, published a poll this week that found it might slightly benefit Trump if the election were held today.

Kennedy gets 14% of the vote in a three-way race, not including West, and turns a 3-point Trump advantage into a 4-point advantage. He does so by pulling 17% of voters who’d otherwise lean toward a Democratic nominee, and just 11% who’d otherwise lean toward a Republican.

“Kennedy would be a threat to the GOP ticket if the nominee were someone like Jeb Bush, not Donald Trump,” Ruffini told Semafor. “If you’re an anti-vax conspiracy theorist, why would you be dissatisfied at all with the current direction of the party under Trump? Meanwhile, you’ve got a lot of low-information Democratic-leaning voters not thrilled with Biden. Republicans like him more, but there are more left-leaning voters potentially up for grabs for a third party.”

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The View From Conservatives

Kennedy’s challenge to Biden, and willingness to meet with conservatives on their turf, won him copious praise on the right. After an armed and disturbed man showed up at a Kennedy event in Los Angeles, pretending to be security, Democrats didn’t react to Kennedy’s repeated requests for Secret Service protection; the conservative Judicial Watch was already on the case, obtaining documents on why Kennedy hadn’t gotten it yet, and blaming the Biden administration.

Across conservative media, Kennedy has sat for long interviews and gotten warm praise — as a challenger to Biden. “He’s intelligent, he’s articulate,” Mike Huckabee said on Fox News last week. “Frankly, I think he is scaring the daylights out of the Biden people, because he is challenging so many of the deep state issues that Donald Trump challenges.”

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The View From A Third Party Candidate

Kennedy met with Libertarian Party chair Angela McArdle this summer, and winning that party’s nomination would give him dozens of state ballot lines. Nagle told Semafor that Kennedy hadn’t reached out since announcing his Philadelphia rally. Two-time Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson said that Kennedy could benefit from voter angst about Biden and trump, but only to a point.

“If it’s Trump and Biden, and Kennedy wins the Libertarian nomination, I’d vote for him,” Johnson said. “In that match-up, would he potentially set records as a third party candidate? Yeah, potentially. But that didn’t work for me. I’ve gotten a doctorate in why the two party system is in the bone marrow of this country. The only way a third party wins is to have parity when it comes to funding. You’re talking about billions of dollars. The only candidate that could have run as an independent and done that would have been Mike Bloomberg.”

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Notable

  • In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake asks whether the GOP embrace of Kennedy’s primary challenge will boomerang and hurt Republicans, who “used Kennedy’s inflated early poll standing as an excuse to treat the primary challenge from a fringe figure as something real and threatening.”
  • In the Kennedy Beacon, the pro-RFK Jr. super PAC’s newsletter, former Reagan OMB director David Stockman writes that the third party bid is coming, and and that its opposition to Ukraine war funding can “attract sufficient refugees from both parties as to make RFK Jr.’s third party candidacy unprecedentedly competitive in the electoral college.”
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