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Can Bobby Kennedy Win the Presidency Now? Of Course

Recent polls show that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has suddenly become a serious contender in the 2024 race for the US presidency. Despite the traditional headwinds against an independent candidate, RJK Jr. shows a powerful possibility of winning.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr

RFK in a visit to Milan, Italy. © Renato Murolo 68 /

November 28, 2023 02:39 EDT

It may come as a surprise, but Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. can win the 2024 presidential election.

Every article you read about RFK Jr. is going to emphasize that his candidacy is a long shot. Some sources — like a recent Vox podcast — will even come right out and say he’ll never win.

The dominant message to the American public is that if you’re not voting Democrat or Republican on Election Day, you are “throwing your vote away.” This is the knee-jerk response to any discussion about a candidate that does not have a D or an R next to their name. 

There are huge institutional barriers designed to block upstart challengers from operating outside the two-party system in the US. Stat-heads can summon Excel spreadsheets that “prove” it is impossible for an independent or third-party challenger to win the Electoral College. In fact, no independent has won the presidency since George Washington. Obviously it would be easier to get around that problem if the popular vote counted in presidential elections. But the US continues to hand victory to the loser of the popular vote about 11% of the time. 

These psychological and structural barriers exist and will still be firmly in place on November 5, 2024. But RFK Jr. can still win.

Watershed polling

A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Kenedy with a surprising 22% share of the electorate in a head-to-head matchup against Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Another poll shows Kennedy pulling ahead of both major party contenders among voters under 45 in several key battleground states. This is a significant breakthrough. 

Unexpectedly, Americans are becoming aware that 2024 could be a three-way race: An independent candidate could potentially upset the two-party hammerlock on power.

But is this a surprise? Joe Biden and Donald Trump are hugely unpopular. According to 538, a majority of Americans holds an unfavorable view of both candidates: 54% for Biden, same for Trump. To say that the people are not jazzed about a replay of the 2020 election is supreme understatement. In contrast, more view Kennedy favorably than unfavorably. 

Old name, new game

So who is Robert Francis Kennedy Junior, who promises to inject fresh blood into the 2024 race?

Well, the name is a clue that he is actually some very old blood, at least by American standards. The Kennedy name is the most recognizable brand in US politics, putting even the Bush dynasty at a distant second place. RFK Jr. is the son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy Sr. and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. It makes one wonder how many Americans would vote for RFK Jr. even if they didn’t know a single other thing about him besides that surname.

The Kennedy provenance gives establishment credibility that past independent and third-party candidates would have killed for: the advantage of an entire life spent in politics. RFK Jr. has been attending high-profile parties since childhood, including the one Frank Sinatra threw for his uncle Jack at the 1960 Democratic convention. As a result, Kennedy knows the fathers of practically every prominent modern American, and there’s a good chance he’s met their grandfathers as well.

However, several members of his family have gone out of their way to disavow his candidacy. Four of eight living siblings put out a statement saying, “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment … We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”

While his family is busy spurning him, Kennedy has now spurned the Democratic Party his family’s traditional home. The Democrats currently hold the White House, and incumbency is always the strongest  advantage in any election. Earlier this year the Democratic National Committee voted to support President Biden’s plan to reorder the primaries according to his preference. On top of that, Democrats won a court case in 2017 that gave the major parties an all-clear to play favorites during the primary election season. Facing what he called roadblocks to “fair primary elections,” RFK Jr. is now running as an independent.

RFK Jr.’s political views: third-party mindset

Voters may know what they’re getting with Biden and Trump, but Kennedy is a true wild card. He told New York Magazine, “I still consider myself a Democrat, and I have all the values that I grew up with, nothing changed.” But outside of his positions on the environment and abortion, there isn’t much overlap between RFK Jr. and his family’s party.

The perception of many Democrats is that RFK Jr. is an anti-vax nutjob. His unorthodox views on the subject are like catnip to the millions who listen to Joe Rogan, but absolutely anathema to mainstream MSNBC-watching Dems — though Kennedy has not actively sought the approval of traditional Democrats, anyway.

It is precisely Kennedy’s ability to appeal to voters outside of the traditional Democratic spectrum that makes him a threat to both major parties. Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Kennedy has recently said he plans to “formulate policies that will seal the border permanently.” He has also been critical of gun control. He has stressed that, while he might support a bipartisan assault weapons ban, he was “not going to take people’s guns away.”

As a Democrat who was willing to criticize President Biden, Kennedy was a frequent guest and darling of the right-wing media circuit during his period in the Democratic primary. After announcing his independent run, however, that relationship may have soured. Republicans like Trump spokesman Steven Cheung swiftly went on the attack, saying in a statement, “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values.”

The GOP has good reason for anxiety. Current polling shows Kennedy is likely to take a bigger chunk of Republican voters than Democrats. No doubt even more alarming to party insiders, a Politico analysis of campaign finance reports shows Kennedy is pulling in significantly more big-money political investment from those who traditionally give to Republicans, hitting the GOP where it hurts.

Kennedy’s image as an anti-establishment populist has enabled him to stake foreign policy positions far outside what either major party could stomach. His primary attack on the Democratic establishment is that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are “warmongers.” He has also criticized the CIA as an institution designed only to provide more wars to keep the military-industrial complex afloat.

But there are also reasons to question how anti-establishment Kennedy truly is. Despite a willingness to call out chemical and oil companies, industrial agriculture and Big Pharma for their culpability for chronic disease, he does not support single-payer healthcare. His views on the Israel–Palestine issue are unlikely to win over many on the left either.

Kennedy also regularly reaffirms his economic orientation as that of “a free-market capitalism kind of guy.” This really shouldn’t be surprising, of course, considering Kennedy’s roots. As he wrote in his own family memoir, American Values, “During the Depression, there were only twenty-four known millionaires in the country, and among them were” both of his grandfathers, Joe Kennedy and George Skakel.

The US’s perfect independent candidate?

Herein lies the irony of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign for president. He is the most establishment candidate, strictly on the strength of his family and the privileged personal position and connections the Kennedy name confers on every member, and yet he possesses an anti-establishment streak. This candidate spent his entire career as an environmental attorney (and if a job like that doesn’t make a person distrustful of what corporations or bureaucracies tell them, nothing will). He is somehow establishment and anti-establishment all rolled into one. 

It is precisely this combination of factors that might make him the perfect candidate for this moment. Independent voters, a huge plurality according to recent polling, have an unfavorable view of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They are looking for something that neither major-party candidate is offering. If Kennedy gives independents reason to show up on Election Day, he can win.

The 2020 election contest had record voter turnout — the biggest in more than a century, 66%. But 80 million eligible voters still didn’t vote: one-third of the US voting population. 80 million is more than enough votes to turn the tide in Kennedy’s favor.

It is the winner-takes-all election system that bequeaths two-party politics to the US. It is winner-takes-all that gives us the lesser-of-two-evils phenomenon, making any independent or third-party candidate a “spoiler.” But another reality of a three-way race is that it is possible to win with a simple plurality of the vote, as little as 34% if the race is a dead heat. As Kennedy himself said, “The Democrats are terrified I’ll spoil the election for President Biden. The Republicans fear I’ll spoil it for President Trump. The truth is — they’re both right! But only their inside-the-beltway myopia deludes them into thinking we have no chance to win.”

Of course RFK Jr. can win.

[Bella Bible edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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