Jun 21, 2024

Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the most important factor in the 2024 election?

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaking with supporters in Arizona. Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaking with supporters in Arizona. Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The independent candidate continues to hold his ground.

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Will anything shake up the 2024 election? 

Little has changed about the dynamics of the race in recent months: Notwithstanding Biden edging past Trump in one recent Fox News poll, the former president has held a small but consistent lead over Biden in national polls for months and still maintains leads of varying sizes in key swing states. These trends have by and large held steady, despite a number of stories that would typically be considered “game changers” — eye-catching articles about Biden’s age and mental acuity, major executive orders on issues like immigration, months of campus protests over the war in Gaza, and, obviously, Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts in New York. 

While I’m a little surprised that these events (and others) haven’t translated into more significant polling shifts, another part of me thinks we shouldn’t be surprised at all. Trump and Biden have had their respective nominations locked up since last year, they’re two of the most recognizable political figures in the world, and the vitriol between political camps is so strong that most people are not going to consider swapping their allegiance. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that we could learn anything new about Donald Trump or Joe Biden to significantly shift their support.

But what if we’re searching for 2024’s “game changer” in all the wrong places — thinking too much about how Trump and Biden can hurt each other, and not enough about whether someone else will take critical votes from both of them? Take another look at those national polls. You might notice a steady gray line lurking beneath the red and blue ones up top. That’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose independent bid for the White House has consistently polled around 10% since March and could be the most important factor in determining the outcome of this election.

Most of the mainstream press hasn’t taken Kennedy’s campaign as seriously as Tangle has; well before Kennedy was even in the race, Isaac predicted that in this year’s election, a third-party candidate would carry the largest percentage of the popular vote since Ross Perot in 1996. With every new poll showing Kennedy with a steady base of support, with every announcement from his campaign that he’s qualified for the ballot in another battleground state, and with every story about how dissatisfied Americans are with the major party candidates this year, that prediction looks increasingly prescient. And in this environment, Kennedy is more likely to disrupt the 2024 race than any “October surprise,” Biden “freeze up,” or Trump controversy. Don’t just take it from me; take it from the Biden and Trump campaigns, too.

If you’re mystified as to why anyone would take Kennedy’s campaign seriously, you’re probably thinking in terms of his chances to win the election. Remember: Gary Johnson received a lackluster 3.3% of the national vote in the 2016 election but still earned more than Trump’s margin of victory in decisive swing states. Kennedy is on pace to not only double Johnson’s total, but perhaps even triple it.

If you’re a Kennedy supporter (or just think his campaign has been under-covered), you probably think this piece is six months late. But Kennedy continues to face the typical challenges of a third-party candidate trying to build support: qualifying for debates, gaining ballot access, and competing with the built-in advantages of the two major parties. 

And before anyone accuses me of getting out over my skis, let me clarify: Like Isaac, I don’t think Kennedy has any shot at winning the election. Still, regardless of whether you support Kennedy or not, it’s a fact that elements of his campaign are popular with a broad (and politically diverse) swath of voters. His history of taking on corporate interests as a lawyer speaks to the sentiments of the “Bernie left” and “Trump right”; he’s adopted a strong anti-war stance that also appeals across party lines; and he’s toed the line on issues like crime, immigration, and reproductive rights in a way that could win him support from voters who see Trump and Biden as too “extreme” on those issues. Pair those positions with a political climate in which 55% of U.S. adults say they aren’t satisfied with the choice between Biden and Trump, and Kennedy’s polling numbers start to make a lot more sense.

There are three main scenarios for Kennedy’s campaign as November nears: His support surges, he maintains his 10% support, and his support starts to flag. Each of these scenarios could massively impact the election in November, and today we’ll explore each one in turn.

1. What if Kennedy’s support surges?

Making the debate stage is the best opportunity Kennedy has to grow his base of support.

As of this week, Kennedy only has one shot left to qualify for a debate. He will have to sit out CNN’s June 27 debate, having fallen well short of its requirement of being on the ballot in enough states to have a chance of winning 270 electoral votes (he currently has a confirmed chance at only 89 electoral votes). The first debate also required participants to have at least 15% support in four national polls, and Kennedy has only hit that mark in three. 

With one opportunity off the table, Kennedy will be all in for September 10. ABC hasn't released its qualifying requirements yet, but if the network’s bar to qualify is higher than CNN’s, then he probably won’t make the cut. If the rules are similar, however, then he has a strong shot — so long as his ballot access is verified by the 13 states (and counting) where he’s submitted signatures for review. 

Since we’re talking about a scenario where Kennedy’s support surges, that would mean he’s pulled it off. Turning the debate into a Trump-Biden-Kennedy showdown would be a stunning achievement for Kennedy’s campaign on its own; no independent or third-party candidate has made a general election presidential debate since Ross Perot, and to achieve that Kennedy would have successfully fought the uphill battle to qualify in one of the most expensive election cycles in history. 

For Kennedy, though, qualifying for the debate is only half the battle. Once in front of the national cameras, he has to perform. 

Kennedy will face several challenges in a national debate. Most obviously, he has a neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia that gives his voice a harsh, raspy sound that can be surprising to first-time listeners and off-putting to listen to. It may not be fair, but superficial traits like that matter in televised debates. 

But the sound of Kennedy’s voice is less important than what he might say. At the beginning of this piece, I made the case that Kennedy’s positions could appeal to a wide swath of voters; but the positions I highlighted are not the ones he is best known for. We’ve published pieces in Tangle about Kennedy’s interest in “conspiracy theories” before so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that his belief that vaccines are unsafe and his more conspiratorial views of both our country and the world could make easy targets for opponents and moderators alike in a debate. 

It’s fair to question how Kennedy will respond to the level of scrutiny that both Biden and Trump have been operating under for years. But if Kennedy uses the debate to position himself as a moderate voice focused on healing divisions in America (like he did in this interview), maybe he walks away as the debate’s winner and his campaign shifts into a new gear. 

This hypothetical isn’t far-fetched. After all, the polling that we have reflects the right-left divide in our country, but the divide between those who follow politics and those who don’t is just as deep. Maybe once election season kicks off in earnest, many of those less engaged voters will be so turned off by the two leading candidates that they’ll give Kennedy a real look, and a strong debate performance sends his poll numbers even higher. 

If that happens, Kennedy could theoretically contend to win one or two states outright, at which point the tenor of the entire race would change. This scenario remains plausible if Kennedy can capitalize on the electorate’s dissatisfaction with Biden and Trump, but I think it’s highly unlikely. Kennedy can only reach that level by not only qualifying for a debate but emerging from it as the clear winner, and it’s likelier that Kennedy’s campaign surges to its high-water mark by simply managing to qualify.

2. What if Kennedy’s support holds steady?

To state the obvious: If Kennedy’s polling holds at its current level for the next four months, he’ll be the most disruptive factor in the election. Crucially, no one seems to have any clue whether he would hurt Biden or Trump more, which just adds to his intrigue. Kennedy could possibly win 12% of the vote or more, potentially even threatening Ross Perot's 18.9% mark from 1992; but in the likelier scenario that he underperforms and earns 5-8% of the vote, he'll still have an enormous impact.

The more important question lurking beneath this hypothetical is what happens if it becomes clear that Kennedy is pulling more support from one candidate or the other. If he’s pulling more from Trump, it seems unlikely that Kennedy would drop out to help the former president. There’s no love lost between the two, and Kennedy often says that he decided to mount a third-party challenge because he’s concerned that Trump would win in a head-to-head matchup with Biden. 

The other scenario, in which likely Biden voters start to gravitate toward Kennedy, is much more interesting. Biden can’t afford to lose any more support; he needs to win back disaffected and independent-minded voters to have a shot. If Biden’s numbers slide and Kennedy’s hold (or increase), the pressure to drop out will be enormous. But it doesn’t seem like he’ll care. The pressure to drop out from his family has gone nowhere, and while Kennedy started the campaign talking about Biden congenially, his tune has changed in recent months. Kennedy is clearly all in at this point, and if he starts to draw support away from Biden more than Trump, he’s more likely to see that as a sign of his campaign’s viability than he is to drop out.

Regardless of whom his candidacy hurts more, suppose Kennedy takes 5% of the vote; barring a blowout by Trump or Biden, that 5% would still make a big difference. 5% is about what Gary Johnson and Jill Stein combined for in 2016, and they took a battering from the left for contributing to Trump’s narrow victory. Kennedy would surely face the same accusations of snatching victory from whichever candidate loses in 2024 — and in this scenario, those critics would probably be right. 

That’s all if Kennedy underperforms the current polls — but historically, national polls have been fairly accurate at forecasting third-party support, particularly when a candidate’s numbers are as consistent as Kennedy’s have been. Ross Perot actually outperformed his final polling average in 1992, then again in 1996. And while his poll numbers fluctuated the summer before both elections, they settled around what his actual vote share would be by the fall. So if Kennedy’s polling keeps hitting double digits in September and October, we can expect those numbers to approximate his eventual performance. 

Kennedy isn’t quite a modern-day Perot, who was actually leading in some polls at this same point in the 1992 campaign and was well on his way to qualifying for the ballot in all 50 states. However, Kennedy doesn’t have to match Perot’s performance to have a similar effect on the election. In fact, he could earn a fraction of Perot’s 18.9% of the vote in 1992 (or 8.4% in 1996) and still play a decisive role in the 2024 outcome. In 2020, Biden won Georgia by 0.2%, Arizona by 0.3%, and Wisconsin by 0.6% — those are margins of just tens of thousands of votes. So for Kennedy, even a comparable performance to Ralph Nader in 2000 (when Nader earned 2.7% of the popular vote) could tip the scales in a close race.

There is one big caveat to add here: Kennedy’s impact will be greatly determined by the states where he earns ballot access. If he’s only on the ballot in solidly red and blue states, then he won’t make much of a difference in the Electoral College, even if he outperforms his expected support. But if he qualifies in all 50 states — or he at least makes it in most of the key battlegrounds (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) — then he only has to pull 1-2% in the right states to make the difference. Even 2% of the vote in just one of those states could be decisive in 2024.

The good news for Kennedy is that his ballot push seems to be building momentum. When Tangle wrote about Kennedy choosing Nicole Shanahan as his running mate in March, we predicted Shanahan would help fund his ballot access push.

Fast forward two months, and we get this press release from the Kennedy campaign: 

“Today, the Kennedy campaign announced it has secured its funding to fulfill ballot access in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Vice Presidential Candidate Nicole Shanahan provided $8 million of additional funding in April.”

While Kennedy still has a lot of work to do to get on every state’s ballot, he’s now on stronger financial footing to do that work, and he’s poised to qualify in enough swing states to remain relevant. That means a steady base of support through November would translate to a major Electoral College impact. 

3. What if Kennedy’s support fades?

Now that I’ve spent all this time building Kennedy up as 2024’s game-changer, it’s time to crash my own party. For all of Kennedy’s consistency in the polls, for all of his momentum in his ballot access push, for all of his efforts to make the debate stage, I think this hypothetical is the most likely — and some national polls suggest it’s already happening.

First, a dose of reality: Poll numbers aren’t votes, getting close to qualifying for the debate doesn’t actually get you on the stage, and submitting signatures doesn’t automatically qualify you for a state’s ballot. I state the obvious here to underscore the point that Kennedy hasn’t actually achieved any of these “game-changing” benchmarks he’s working toward, and reaching even one will be a challenge. His campaign has made it further than most independent bids before it, but it hasn’t passed any real tests yet.

Without qualifying for the September debate, it’s hard to envision Kennedy having any other moment in the national spotlight that could help him maintain (or bolster) his poll numbers. The blow would be a knockout to his campaign, which clearly understands the stakes

He’s only been granted ballot access in eight states so far, and we don’t know that his ballot signatures will be verified in all 13 states where he’s awaiting review. He’s already run into problems in Nevada, and the campaign is currently suing over the state’s decision. How much more money is Shanahan willing to commit beyond the $8 million she’s already put up? Can the campaign court new donors? Does it have the manpower it needs to organize volunteers and continue collecting signatures to meet rapidly approaching filing deadlines? These are all pressing questions for a campaign that’s still in a cash crunch even with infusions from its wealthy vice presidential candidate. 

Independent candidates struggle for a reason. They’re often starting from scratch, the media doesn’t give them nearly the same amount of attention as it gives the major parties, and many voters feel that supporting a third-party candidate is akin to throwing their vote away. Lastly, many polling respondents could just be claiming to support Kennedy to voice their dissatisfaction with the major party options and will eventually choose Trump or Biden. 

Kennedy’s campaign seems stable at 10%, but it can easily start to collapse if he can’t get on enough state ballots, or if he does but fails to qualify for a debate, or if he qualifies but fails to perform well. And if his support starts to flag and the money starts to run out, he’ll probably suspend his campaign before October.

That said, even in this most dire scenario for Kennedy — the one where he throws in the towel without ever throwing a haymaker — he’ll probably pull hundreds and thousands of disillusioned voters out of the election with him. And it could be months, or even years, before we fully understand how big an impact even a failed Kennedy campaign will have had on the election.

The next four months

Saying that Kennedy has spent the last eight months building the strongest third-party challenge of the 21st century is like saying he’s prepared the most promising cake batter in history: None of that matters if you can’t bake the cake. 

Pay attention to how the Trump and Biden campaigns — and the media — talk about Kennedy. Trump has started to attack him directly, while Biden has mostly leaned on surrogates to try to consolidate support among the Kennedy-curious. Commentators on both sides are also ramping up their attacks. In 1992, the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton campaigns both thought Perot would help them against their opponent, and each tried to appeal to Perot’s supporters. In the 2000 election, Al Gore tried to downplay his differences with Ralph Nader in the final weeks of the campaign, while supporters of George W. Bush aired pro-Nader ads. If Democrats and Republicans escalate their attacks on Kennedy in the coming months, it will be a clear sign that they see him as a threat. 

In sum, Kennedy’s candidacy will take on outsized importance in a close election. And even if you don’t take his politics seriously, there’s ample reason to pay attention to his campaign as the race crescendos. Kennedy’s support — whether it surges, holds, or flags — isn’t the only variable that could impact the election, but it will be a central factor. Kennedy's success or failure with gaining ballot access will clue us in on which direction his campaign is headed, and we could get a sense of that by the time the DNC and RNC conventions wrap up. Until then, we should all be keeping an eye on 2024’s potential game-changer.

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