Running as an independent candidate may have unpredictable consequences
Rumours are swirling that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will announce an independent run for the presidency. A scion of American political royalty, Kennedy is at the same time a political outsider and has struggled to gain traction against Joe Biden in the Democratic primary. Because he scrambles the political map, Kennedy could be a source of chaos in the general election.
Many Democrats still blame Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a factor for Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 win, and the prospect of a third-party challenger haunts Biden allies today. Polls show that even many Democrats have reservations about a Biden reelection effort, citing concerns about his age. In national primary polls, Kennedy has generally scored in the mid-teens or below against Biden, who often leads by more than 50 points. In a close presidential race, even the defection of a small cluster of Democrats could make a difference.
But other polling details could help Democratic strategists sleep a little easier: Kennedy’s approval rating is much higher with Republicans than Democrats. A recent Quinnipiac poll, for instance, gave him a net +30 approval rating among Republicans and a net -43 approval rating among Democrats. A September CNN poll of New Hampshire voters found that only 1% of Democrats in the state would be enthusiastic if Kennedy won the presidency; 80% would be either angry or dissatisfied. Green Party candidate Cornel West, meanwhile, scores much better among progressive voters and may be more of a threat to Biden with this group.
Even though Kennedy has emphasised many Trumpian themes, his greatest danger to the former president in a hypothetical 2024 general election might not come from the defection of regular Republican voters. GOP sceptics of Trump are based in the centre-right of the party and are unlikely to pull the lever for Kennedy. A Republican voter hostile to the “deep state” and aid to Ukraine wouldn’t need to turn to RFK when DJT is already there.
Instead, Kennedy could appeal to the alienated and disgruntled independents who have been an important political bloc for Trump. A Suffolk University poll of registered voters who were unlikely to vote favoured Trump over Biden by 32% to 13% — but 18% also said they would support a third-party candidate.
With its lingering residue of early-Sixties glamour, the Kennedy name has considerable appeal to those on the political margins. A number of QAnon theories rotate around the return of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (sometimes as Trump’s running mate) and even of JFK himself. Robert Kennedy’s eclectic platform — going further than Trump on issues like vaccines — might help cement his standing with those voters.
At least two unknowns remain. So far, Trump World has been quite warm to Kennedy. What happens if, sensing a threat, the former president turns his fire on him? That could dent Kennedy’s approval among Republican-aligned voters, but it would also be a reversal of Trump’s usual strategic posture (being the outsider against the political mainstream).
An even bigger unknown is the question of ballot access. As the Green Party nominee in 2016, Jill Stein was on the ballot in 44 states plus DC. If he runs as an independent, Kennedy faces much higher logistical hurdles. In many states, he would have to collect tens of thousands of signatures to make it to the general election ballot. In the battleground state of Michigan, for instance, an independent candidate would need to submit 12,000 valid signatures (ranging across at least half of the state’s congressional districts) in order to get on the ballot. In the race for president, political outsiders need to build a massive organisation quickly.