February 17, 2024 - 5:15pm

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been performing unusually well for an independent presidential candidate, winning over a cross-section of voters that defies partisan demographic patterns. 

The podcast Breaking Points ran a small focus group earlier this week on RFK supporters in the Detroit suburbs, and found that they were drawn by his charisma, independence and name, with some expecting him to carry on his family’s legacy and others believing he’d take the Kennedy name in a new direction. Participants in the small focus group were sceptical of the political establishment’s handling of Covid-19, though they all had different concerns, such as vaccine safety, corporate vaccine requirements and Covid treatment policies. 

The RFK supporters had unfavourable views of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and three of the seven participants said that Kennedy joining Trump’s ticket as vice president would improve their perception of the latter. 

Broader demographic data from various pollsters paints a more clear picture of precisely what type of voter is supporting RFK, who has a massive advantage among young people. In a three-way race, RFK wins 38% of the vote among those aged 18 to 34, higher than both Biden and Trump, according to a Quinnipiac poll carried out in October. His performance progressively worsens in proportion to voters’ age — he only wins 14% of the 65 and up vote — throwing cold water on the idea that he owes his success to older voters’ fond memories of his uncle, John F. Kennedy. 

The same poll found that RFK performed better among Hispanic (33%) and black (24%) voters compared to white voters (17%). RFK’s father and namesake was viewed as a civil rights icon and was similarly popular with racial minorities. 

More recent polling breaks down candidates into a five-way race, with Cornel West and Jill Stein included, and a similar pattern emerges. RFK performs twice as well with under-35s as he does with over-65s, and he receives 20% of the Hispanic vote along with 13% of the black and white vote. 

Between the youth and minority vote, RFK is cutting into a coalition that one might expect to go for Biden. Yet voters with favourable views of Kennedy were twice as likely to have voted for Trump than for Biden in 2020, a January YouGov poll found. Respondents were virtually tied on whether they viewed RFK as liberal or conservative. 

The media has focused on his vaccine scepticism, which in the Covid era has landed him firmly on the Right in the public’s perception. But Kennedy has called for “targeted community repair” of areas impacted by racial segregation and a reformative approach to criminal justice that emphasises “rehabilitation” of offenders rather than punishment.  

RFK remains a long-shot candidate, but his ascendance offers some clues about Americans’ disenchantment with the political establishment and the two-party system. Main-party candidates looking to win over independents might take some cues from Kennedy, who has managed to peel voters off of both Trump and Biden. 

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.