For months, Republicans have been reveling in Robert F Kennedy Jr’s presidential bid.
Running in the Democratic primary against Joe Biden, the hope has been that Kennedy could weaken the president ahead of a presumed Biden-Trump match-up in 2024.
But with Kennedy expected to announce that he will ditch the Democratic party and run as an independent, some commentators are suggesting that conservatives’ schadenfreude could come back to haunt them.
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That’s because of the curious case of Kennedy’s political appeal.
It turns out that the son of Robert F Kennedy and nephew of John F Kennedy, Democratic giants who maintain widespread admiration in the party, is actually more popular among Republicans – including some of the most influential rightwing voices in the US.
Kennedy, Steve Bannon said on his War Room podcast in April, would be “an excellent choice” for Trump’s running mate.
Charlie Kirk, founder of the rightwing Turning Point USA, has praised Kennedy. So has Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor and QAnon enthusiast.
The noted rightwing crank Alex Jones added his endorsement on his InfoWars show.
“I don’t agree with Robert F Kennedy Jr on some topics, but he’s a man of integrity that fights fluoride and poison shots and fentanyl and everything else. He’s a good man,” said Jones, who last year was ordered to pay nearly $1bn to relatives of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting victims, after he falsely claimed the shooting was a hoax.
The support for Kennedy from fluoridated-water-lowers-IQ-and-or-causes-cancer Republicans makes sense. Kennedy, 69, is a man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like.
In the last few months alone, the former environmental lawyer has said that wifi causes “leaky brain”, and linked antidepressants to school shootings. In June Kennedy said chemicals in water are making kids transgender and and declared that US support for Ukraine to be “a setup by the neocons and the CIA”. He also has longstanding, and wrong, beliefs about apparently any and all vaccines.
Kennedy first announced he was considering a run for the Democratic nomination in March, in a speech that, true to form, was banned from YouTube for violating the platform’s “medical misinformation” policies.
In April, he announced his candidacy for real, in a video that has not yet been removed from YouTube, and soon some polls showed that up to 20% of Democratic primary voters would pledge for Kennedy.
With RFK Jr, there will be people who will lose some sleep on both sides
If, as expected, Kennedy is to run as an independent, those numbers would suggest he could strip votes from Biden.
Not so, said Steffen Schmidt, professor emeritus in the department of political science at Iowa State University.
“Kennedy is an IED – we don’t know [when] he’s going to blow and on whom,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said there may have been early “sentimental” appeal for Kennedy among Democrats, given his family’s history. Biden’s age – a recent poll showed a majority of Democrats believe the president is too old to be effective for four more years – might have also been a factor in liberals considering a different candidate.
“And then they began to hear the menu of things, his conspiracy theories and all that, and they began to see him on Fox News and all kinds of other conservative media, and the honeymoon was over,” Schmidt said.
That slew of appearances on conservative media, and at rightwing events – Kennedy has previously appeared at a show hosted by ReAwaken America, described by PBS as “a petri dish for Christian nationalism” – have made him popular among Republican voters, many of whom are still in thrall to Donald Trump, another noted conspiracy theorist.
A FiveThirtyEight review of eight polls on Kennedy’s popularity in both parties found that he was actually better liked among Republicans than Democrats, which Schmidt attributed to his conspiratorial beliefs. (Kennedy has also said that 5G towers could “control our behavior” and suggested HIV is not the cause of Aids. He has been accused of racism and antisemitism over claims – partly withdrawn – that Covid-19 was “ethnically targeted” at Caucasians and Black people, while sparing Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people, while in July the Congressional Integrity Project, a political watchdog, released a report that details Kennedy’s meetings with and promotion of racists, antisemites and extremist conspiracy theorists.
“He has conspiracy theories, including his anti-vaccine position, which is very popular among conservative Republicans,” Schmidt said. “There’s a pretty formidable list of things that would appeal to a more fringy group on the Republican side.”
Kennedy is already attracting Republican donors: in July Axios reported that a “small but growing number” of donors had given heavily to the presidential campaigns of both Kennedy – when he was still running as a Democrat – and Republican candidates.
“Republicans put a lot of effort and money into getting visibility because they thought that was going to hurt Joe Biden and now it looks more like it’s going to backfire on them. I’m not a gambling man. But if I had to put $1,000 on the table in Las Vegas, I would put it on Republicans losing some votes in some states to him and not the Democrats,” Schmidt said.
“Although with RFK Jr, there will be people who will lose some sleep on both sides. Biden supporters and staffers, as well as some of the Trump campaign people will be worried as to what’s going to happen.”
For all the talk of Kennedy’s potential effect, there is near universal agreement that, as an independent, he will not win the presidential election.
“Independent candidates typically will carve away support from one of the major parties,” said Emmitt Y Riley III, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at DePauw University and president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
“But the problem is most voters in the US will claim that they are independents, when in actuality they’re more partisan than people who identify with political parties. And people like the label ‘independent’, but their politics isn’t independent at all.”
There is some precedent for independent and third-party candidates having an effect in presidential elections, including Ross Perot, who won 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 race between George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.
In 2000, George W Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, which clinched Bush the presidency. Ralph Nader, running on the Green party ticket, won 97,421 votes in the state, and Democrats – including Joe Biden – blamed him for Gore’s loss.
“Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors [of Congress]. Nader cost us the election,” Biden told the Guardian at the time.
Related: RFK Jr draws quite a crowd – what does it mean for 2024?
Similarly, a CNN analysis of Trump’s 2016 win found that Jill Stein, the Green party presidential candidate and Gary Johnson representing the Libertarian party, did well enough “in several states arguably to help elect Donald Trump”.
The financial might of the Democratic and Republican parties, however, means independents or third party candidates will always face an uphill battle. The electoral college system, in which a successful candidate must win the vote in numerous states, is another obstacle.
And while exposure hasn’t been a problem for Kennedy, at least among rightwing media, he will face difficulties making it into the presidential debates, which are watched by millions.
Kennedy could also face an Icarus moment, should he be seen as drawing too much support from either of the main parties.
“If he wants to run, run. Fine,” a source close to the Trump campaign told the Daily Beast after rumors of Kennedy’s independent effort began to circulate.
“But if he chooses to run as an independent, then he’s our opponent.”
Not everyone agrees that Kennedy’s campaign will be most damaging to Trump, however. Riley said that given the lack of enthusiasm for Biden at large – his public approval rating has been below 50% for more than two years – and continuing concerns over the economy, plus the enthusiasm of Trump’s base, Democrats should be more worried.
“I’m not convinced that he will threaten Trump. I think the core supporters who support Donald Trump are typically rich white conservatives, and conservatives who have negative racial attitudes.
“And as a result, the way in which he’s been able to prime support among these particular voters, I think Trump has a solid core of voters who will support him. I don’t think any of the voters who are voting for Trump are swing voters, or voters that are on the fence.”
On Kennedy’s side, so far is a demonstrated ability to bring in lots of money, including $5m given to an affiliated Super Pac by a Trump donor. He’s not young, but he’s younger than Biden and Trump, in an election where age may become a factor.
While Kennedy and his novel beliefs are mostly a benign fascination at the moment, the consequences of him forging a strong independent run could be serious.
“I think if Trump wins the election, we’re gonna see the nation move more towards authoritarianism,” Riley said.
“We’re going to see more erosion of our democratic norms, I think we’re going to be in trouble. America can no longer sell itself as a republic, or even as a democratic form of government – with a president who disrespects our democratic institutions.
“I think that this is one of the most consequential inventions of our time.”