Much like Ross Perot 30 long years ago, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has become the giant X-factor in the 2024 presidential race. Call him a gadfly, conspiracy theorist, or heroic figure of some sort, but one way or another, either the Donald Trump or Joe Biden camp will be lamenting the presence of the now-independent scion of the Kennedy clan in its election post-mortem. Indeed, unless Kennedy can actually pull off an upset even more historic than Trump in 2016, any outcome in the 2024 presidential election that includes a significant percentage for RFK Jr. will undoubtedly swing the race to one of the major party candidates.
The question that will endure for the year between now and that fateful Election Day is whether the beneficiary will be Trump or Biden. Early polling in the wake of RFK Jr.’s announcement that he was forsaking the Democrats — or, perhaps more precisely, the Democrats were forsaking him, going as far as denying Secret Service protection to a candidate whose father and uncle were both victims of assassination — suggests the answer is not yet clear. Those on the right who encouraged Kennedy’s candidacy when he was a Democrat now are not so sure he will help their cause.
So then, where does the advantage lie — for Biden or Trump — when a robust Kennedy campaign is factored in? Well, one might answer Trump, because Kennedy was a longtime Democrat and attracted up to 20% support in his head-to-head, debate-free, and largely media-free race against Biden. Furthermore, RFK Jr. represents just one of a trio of threats to the incumbent.
There is also the Cornel West factor, already causing 2:00 am cold sweats for Democrats who remember how Ralph Nader “cost” Al Gore the 2000 election, and Jill Stein did the same to Hillary Clinton in 2016. And while the question of whether Kennedy will draw more votes from Trump or Biden is open to debate, there is little doubt that approximately 100% of support for West, the far-left Ivy League professor, will come at the expense of Biden.
The RFK Jr. Conundrum
The first survey by Ipsos following Kennedy going independent showed that Trump and Biden would finish tied in a head-to-head race. But when RFK Jr. was added to the mix in a three-way contest, Trump finished ahead of Biden by two points. Subsequent polls have been, if not all over the map, at least mixed. And there have now been two polls released on the four-way race that is now in the cards between announced candidates Trump, Biden, Kennedy, and West. One by Harvard-Harris has Trump leading Biden by seven points, with RFK Jr. at a surprising 21% and West at 3%. The other, by USA Today/Suffolk, has Trump and Biden tied, with Kennedy at 13% and West at 4%.
And let’s not forget the dormant volcano — inactive but ready to erupt at any time — known as No Labels, a profound threat to both major parties from the middle. While it’s still not clear that the party will definitely field a presidential candidate in 2024, who that candidate might be, or whether the most likely standard bearer, Joe Manchin, will run for another term as senator from West Virginia or for president, one might argue that Manchin, like Kennedy in some scenarios, could draw as many votes from Trump as from Biden. Sure, there may be some GOP voters who either hate Trump and/or are wary of his chances of winning the general election and see Manchin as a semi-heroic figure who thwarted history-changing progressive legislation that could have placed us in an even more precarious financial state than we find ourselves in today. But Manchin was more a unifying voice for rank-and-file Democrats who remember the salad days of liberalism and regret the growing progressivism of their party.
Add it all up, and while the singular threat of RFK Jr. could possibly wound Trump as much or more than Biden among an electorate that clearly prefers other voices, the three-headed monster for Biden — West, Kennedy, and Manchin/No Labels — or even a combination of the two who have already entered the race would have to rate as a substantially greater threat to Biden than to Trump.
A major factor is the number of states where Kennedy can realistically expect to get on the ballot. It’s a heavy lift for unaffiliated contenders. For example, in Indiana, an independent must gather ballot petition signatures from registered voters equal to 2% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent election for secretary of state. That would require almost 37,000 signatures, a herculean task even for a well-organized campaign. “It takes significant expertise to navigate specific rules for every state and the requirements needed before signatures can even begin to be collected — and then to beat back the legal challenges that will almost certainly follow,” according to Politico.
RFK Jr.’s supporters cover the waterfront. His is an unusually bipartisan tent, not nearly as large as those of Trump and Biden, but certainly more diverse in the truest sense of the word. As he pointed out in his announcement, his supporters are liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, pro-choice and pro-life. For most politicians, this claim would amount to merely a boast akin to when Democrats call legislation bipartisan because it attracted one or two votes from rogue Republicans. But in Kennedy’s case, polling numbers one year out from the election suggest he is right.
But if the appeal of RFK Jr. is his undiluted populism, much like that of his martyred father, then why would those looking to break the stranglehold of the DC ruling elite turn to him rather than the ultimate anti-establishment candidate, Trump? As has been the case in the last four election cycles, the issue becomes personality rather than policy. Trump’s record consistently ranks above Biden’s in the view of everyday voters, while his public presentation, shall we say, leaves much to be desired for many.
In the end, the question becomes whether Robert F. Kennedy Jr. can succeed by being far off the beaten path, nonpartisan, unfailingly earnest, serious as the day is long, and to many, conspiracy theories aside, relentlessly honest in speaking truth to power — and doing so while appearing unconcerned about attracting scorn and ridicule. He may not get to be president of the United States, but he sure as heck will have an outsized influence on who does.