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Kennedy Now Threatens Both Candidates

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

For a while there, the independent ticket of ex-Democrats Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Nicole Shanahan seemed to be taking crucial votes away from Democrat Joe Biden, at least as indicated by comparing three-way and five-way (with Cornel West and Jill Stein) polls to head-to-head matchups of the incumbent and Donald Trump. Now, even as Biden has all but erased his polling deficit against Trump, he’s getting some more good news in surveys that include other candidates.

Two recent major national polls show Biden running better in a five-way than a two-way race. According to NBC News, Biden moves from two points down to two points up when the non-major-party candidates are included. In the latest Marist poll, Biden leads Trump by three points head-to-head and by five points in a five-way race. Since left-bent candidates West and Stein are pulling 5 percent in the former poll and 4 percent in the latter (presumably taking very few votes from Trump), you have to figure Kennedy is beginning to cut into the MAGA vote to an extent that should get Team Trump’s attention. And it has, NBC News reports:

Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he’s confident that independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will pull more votes away from President Joe Biden than from him — a net win for the Republican’s candidacy.

“He is Crooked Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, not mine,” Trump wrote on Truth Social late last month. “I love that he is running!”

Behind closed doors, however, Trump is less sure. A Republican who was in the room with Trump this year as he reviewed polling said Trump was unsure how Kennedy would affect the race, asking the other people on hand whether or not Kennedy was actually good for his candidacy.

Politico notes that Kennedy is drawing higher favorability numbers from Republican voters than from Democratic ones, which could indicate a higher ceiling for RFJ Jr. among Trump defectors. And it’s generally assumed from his past performances that there is a lower ceiling on Trump’s support than on Biden’s; he needs to be able to win with significantly less than a majority of the popular vote, as one Republican told Politico:

“If the Trump campaign doesn’t see this as a concern, then they’re delusional,” Republican consultant Alice Stewart said. “They should be looking at this from the standpoint that they can’t afford to lose any voters — and certainly not to a third-party candidate that shares some of [Trump’s] policy ideas.”

One likely reason that Kennedy could be appealing to Republicans is the residual effect from the positive attention he received from conservative media when he was running against Biden in the Democratic primaries; his identification with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories also resonates more positively on the right side of the political spectrum than the left. So it’s in the interest of Team Trump to begin telling the former president’s sympathizers that RFK Jr. is actually a lefty, and that started happening recently, as the New York Times reported: “Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, pointed in particular to Mr. Kennedy’s views on climate change and the environment, writing on his social media site that Mr. Kennedy was more ‘radical Left’ than Mr. Biden.”

The idea, of course, is not only to discourage potential Trump voters from drifting toward the independent candidate, but to encourage potential Biden voters to consider a Kennedy vote.

If Kennedy continues to draw votes from both Biden and Trump, each of their campaigns will need to make a strategic decision about how to deal with him: Do you ignore him and count on the usual fade in support afflicting non-major-party presidential candidates as Election Day nears, or do you attack him as too far left (if you’re Trump) or too far right (if you’re Biden) and try to make him a handicap to your major-party opponent? The more aggressive approach has become common among Democrats seeking to intervene in Republican primaries (or in the recent case of the California Senate race, a nonpartisan top-two primary) by loudly attacking candidates they’d prefer to face in the general election, encouraging Republicans to flock to the supposed menace to progressivism. This kind of tactic — if deployed with some serious dollars — could have an effect on Kennedy’s base of support.

Certainly Trump seems to be considering it. With his usual practice of saying the quiet part out loud, Trump opined: “If I were a Democrat, I’d vote for RFK Jr. every single time over Biden, because he’s frankly more in line with Democrats.” Just what Democratic voters need: some tips from Coach Trump.

Trying to minimize losses to Kennedy and maximize opposite-party votes for Kennedy could become a routine practice down the stretch. Where and by whom this strategy is pursued will depend in part on where RFK Jr. is ultimately on the ballot. Right now he has nailed down ballot access in just two states, Utah and Michigan. CBS News reports the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket is close to securing a spot on the November ballot in a number of other states:

Kennedy’s campaign says it has completed signature gathering in seven other states in addition to Utah and Michigan — Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nebraska and Iowa. 

The super PAC supporting Kennedy, American Values 2024, says it has collected enough signatures in Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. 

Coping with Kennedy could become a game of three-dimensional chess between the Biden and Trump campaigns. But if it begins to look like RFK Jr. has become an existential threat to Democrats or to Republicans, you can bet they’ll go medieval on him without even a moment’s hesitation.


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