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The Spoiler

Would an RFK independent run really hurt Trump more than Biden?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a Hispanic Heritage Month event at Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 15, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I’m suspicious of the congealing conventional wisdom that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would do more damage to Donald Trump as a third-party candidate than to Joe Biden.

Even though some of its proponents, like our own Chris Stirewalt, have forgotten more about politics than I’ll ever know.

What makes me suspicious is the delight I take in the prospect. I don’t care how Trump ends up losing so long as he loses, but to have him lose because a far-left nut ended up stealing the right-wing crank vote from him would be sweet beyond words. Live by the conspiracy theory, die by the conspiracy theory.

It might even ruin the inevitable “rigged election” spin that would follow. If Trump lost narrowly in swing states with Kennedy on the ballot, how hard would it really be for MAGA voters to believe that just enough anti-vaxxers switched from Republican to a third party?

It’s too good to be true. So it probably isn’t.

Stirewalt and I are buzzing about this because of the news that Kennedy will make a “major announcement” in Philadelphia next Monday. It isn’t hard to guess what that announcement will be. In July he met privately with the chairman of the Libertarian Party; a few days ago he released a video vowing that there’s a path for him to the presidency but “not through playing the game by the corrupt rules that the corrupt powers and the vested interests have rigged to keep us all in their thrall.”

On Friday Mediaite reported that that means exactly what you think it means.

Some of Trump’s most prominent toadies greeted the news with a collective “Uh oh.”

Roger Stone warned that if RFK can get on the ballot in all 50 states, he’ll take votes disproportionately from the Republican nominee. MAGA “influencer” Jack Posobiec is worried about it too. So is Charlie Kirk, who conveniently forgot which slice of partisan media has been excitedly promoting Kennedy’s campaign for months in the belief that a Democratic primary challenge would mortally wound Biden’s chances of reelection.

Live by the conspiracy theory, die by the conspiracy theory.

“This is going to f— Trump,” one Kennedy campaign insider told Mediaite about his candidate’s impending third-party run. “Bobby’s values are much more in line with patriots. He’s against Big Pharma. He’s pro-Bitcoin. Decentralize so the government can’t control it.”

The fact that someone aligned with RFK’s effort would refer offhandedly to right-wing populists as “patriots” speaks volumes about the overlap between Kennedy’s audience and Trump’s.

I agree with Stirewalt and most everyone else that Kennedy is positioned uniquely to make both major-party candidates sweat in a general election. Take any other hypothetical third-party nominee from across the spectrum—Gavin Newsom, Joe Manchin, Larry Hogan, Nikki Haley, you name it—and their candidacy would assuredly hurt the president more than it would hurt Trump. It would attract Democrats who’ve grown disenchanted with their very old and underwhelming incumbent and it would vacuum up center-right Never Trump votes that otherwise would have gone reluctantly to Biden.

RFK is different. He’s the “horseshoe theory” option, a figure less easily identified as left or right than as fringe-populist. Isolationist, conspiratorial, anti-establishment in all particulars, he’s the guy you vote for when you want to signal radical hostility to the status quo.

There are a lot of voters like that on the modern American right, you may have noticed. Trump should worry.

But I think Biden should worry more.

The case that Kennedy will take more votes from a Republican than from a Democrat is so simple that it can be summarized in a sentence: Republicans really, really like RFK and Democrats really, really don’t.

And in both cases, those feelings have deepened over time.

Aaron Blake looked at the latest polling in a piece on Monday for the Washington Post. Back in June, Kennedy’s favorable rating was net positive by 22 points within the GOP and net negative by 14 points within his own party. Today he stands at +30 and -43, respectively, among the two sides, making him more popular among Republicans than Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy and about as popular as Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.

Blake looked only at Quinnipiac’s data, but other surveys have detected a sharp partisan divide over RFK for months. In July FiveThirtyEight published an analysis of eight different polls that found his popularity among Democrats all over the map, from +25 in one to -31 in another. Averaging all of them left him at -5. Among Republicans, his numbers were steady as could be: His worst mark was +20 and his best was +36, producing an average of +28.

There’s no single explanation for why Kennedy has grown so popular on the right. Partly it’s a function of Stone, Posobiec, Kirk, Fox News, and other MAGA grifters having endlessly hyped his candidacy in hopes of weakening Biden on the left, a strategy that now risks backfiring spectacularly. Partly too it’s a matter of RFK succumbing repeatedly to the temptation to pander to his right-wing fan base despite nominally running as a Democrat. In August, for instance, he said he’d support banning abortion after the first trimester before someone reminded him that he’s supposed to be a liberal. A month later he visited with Oliver Anthony, the singer-songwriter who became an overnight sensation on the right this summer for his song “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

Despite his progressive views on matters like environmentalism, Kennedy nowadays is less a liberal Democrat with some right-wing leanings than a populist Republican with some left-wing leanings. From Ukraine to vaccines to basic trust in institutions, he’s more of a kindred spirit to Trump supporters than Biden supporters. Go figure that pitting him against both in a general election might tempt more Trump supporters than Biden supporters to switch their votes.

Still, I have trouble answering this question: What does a “Trump to Kennedy” switcher look like?

Describe to me the sort of voter who was prepared to send President Insurrection back for another term but, upon being given RFK as an option, now feels he has no choice but to support a weird-even-by-populist-standards no-hoper instead?

It’s not easy. Whereas it is pretty easy to imagine what a “Biden to Kennedy” switcher might look like.

RFK may be widely disliked by Democrats but by no means is he universally disliked. Even now, after months of deterioration in his favorability, he routinely polls in the mid-teens against Biden in national primary surveys. Today at RealClearPolitics he stands at 14.9 percent against the president, slightly better than the 13.7 percent Ron DeSantis is pulling against Trump, while an Echelon Insights poll published on Monday placed him as high as 18 percent. It’s possible that most of his support is concentrated in blue states rather than swing states, but at 18 percent nationally one would think he’d command enough support on the left even in battlegrounds to potentially swing a tight election as a third-party spoiler.

Any Democratic voter who’s endured six months of exposure to Kennedy’s kookery and still prefers him to Joe Biden is pretty committed to their candidate, I suspect.

Both parties have sizable blocs of malcontents who crave a candidate to destabilize “the system” but a progressive malcontent will find too much to dislike about Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism to prefer his form of destabilization to Biden.For that voter, a two-man general election is a choice between staying home and unhappily supporting an incumbent who’s quintessentially establishmentarian on everything from the war in Ukraine to court-packing. Deprived of any other option, some will choose that incumbent reluctantly. Give them a third choice by putting RFK on the ballot and they’ll choose differently.

Is the same true for right-wing malcontents with respect to Trump?

“Sure,” you might say. “The vaccine issue alone will give many Republican populists a reason to switch their votes from Trump, who helped bring mRNA COVID vaccines to market, to Kennedy.”

If that’s true, tell me why Ron DeSantis trails Trump by nearly 50 points despite having spent the last two years slobbering over vaccine skeptics.

It’s not because DeSantis is less likable than Kennedy. The governor of Florida remains considerably more popular within the GOP than RFK. The Quinnipiac poll cited by Blake has his favorability at 70-16 among the right compared to 48-18 for the Democrat.

It’s not because DeSantis has neglected to litigate the issue either. He’s tried. Republican voters haven’t responded. In fact, when a right-wing outside group tested an ad among Iowa GOP primary voters attacking Trump on the pandemic and vaccines, Trump’s support went up. That was one of more than 40 ads tested across an array of topics that failed utterly to dent the frontrunner’s support.

Conceivably the 13.7 percent of the Republican vote that currently belongs to DeSantis consists of wall-to-wall anti-vaxxers primed to jump ship and support Kennedy in a general election if Trump is the nominee, but I’m skeptical. DeSantis backers tend to fall into two groups: A larger post-liberal bloc that wants a more aggressive right-wing authoritarian than Trump and a smaller Reaganite bloc that views DeSantis as more traditionally conservative than Trump.

Neither one of those is a natural match for progressive-ish Democrat Bobby Kennedy Jr.

For all of the anti-vax sentiment on the right, in other words, there’s reason to think few right-wing voters are treating the issue as determinative or even particularly important. If that’s so, then which issues will supposedly tip them from Trump to Kennedy?

Ukraine? Kennedy wants an end to U.S. involvement in the war. Trump, in his own cagey noncommittal way, does too. Abortion? Kennedy is pro-choice, sort of. Trump, in his own cagey noncommittal way, is too. Dismantling corrupt institutions? Kennedy is all for it. Trump, in very much not a cagey or noncommittal way, is as well. There’s a case to be made, in fact, that his appointees in a second term would do more damage to institutional Washington than Kennedy’s would.

RFK’s popularity on the right is, I think, less a matter of support for his positions on discrete issues than a reward for his overarching anti-establishment sensibility, as one might expect of a party that’s largely moved on from caring about policy. If you’re a populist Republican who views your vote as an opportunity to communicate your contempt for “the system,” voting for Kennedy would signal that contempt more strongly than voting for Ron DeSantis or, God knows, Nikki Haley.

But Donald Trump?

Trump has framed his campaign explicitly as a matter of “retribution” against his political enemies and is getting closer every day to calling for them to be outright murdered. (Some would say he’s already done so, in so many words.) In theory, I suppose, there are voters who prefer Trump to Kennedy on the policy merits yet have been turned off by the occasional digressions about executing Mark Milley and therefore feel morally obliged to support RFK instead. But there can’t be a huge number of them. When your antipathy to America’s civic institutions has reached the point that you’re willing to reelect a coup-plotter, it’s hard to believe there are any red lines left that a bit of loose talk encouraging domestic terrorism might cross.

If, as I’ve said, Kennedy is the “horseshoe theory” candidate then logically he should end up drawing more votes from disaffected leftists than from disaffected rightists. Because he and Trump are close together on the populist end of the horseshoe, a populist Republican might reasonably view Trump as a marginally inferior yet still acceptable—and certainly more electable!—alternative. But RFK and Biden are poles apart, so the substitution isn’t so neatly made. A Chapo Trap House fan who regards government by neoliberals as almost as nauseating as government by Trump might end up tilting toward Kennedy, if only as a better-known protest-vote alternative to Green Party candidate Cornel West.

Lo and behold, when Echelon Insights tested a three-way race between Trump, Biden, and RFK, they found validation for my theory. Kennedy’s candidacy didn’t grow Biden’s margin over Trump, it grew Trump’s margin over Biden.

There are two burn-it-all-down options for cranks in that three-way race. Go figure that the right’s arsonists, a faction infamous for being fanatical in its loyalty to the party leader, turn out to be more content with their nominee than the left’s arsonists are with theirs.

If no one in the Republican Party has managed to successfully deprogram Trump’s cult, why would we assume that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. could?

Still, there are two ways I can imagine Kennedy’s candidacy helping Biden inadvertently.

One is that his presence in the race might drag Trump further to the right than he’d prefer to go for electability’s sake. If Kennedy pushes hard on vaccines and Trump starts to sweat about some of his supporters becoming single-issue voters after all, will Trump lunge toward an anti-vax position himself? If he does, like by vowing to put RFK in charge of the FDA, how might that influence undecided voters who are trying to talk themselves into giving him a second chance but queasy about how crazy the next four years might be?

The other is that, while Kennedy might not draw much support from likely Trump voters, he may fare better with unlikely ones.

Last month USA Today surveyed Americans who are eligible to vote in 2024 but, for one reason or another, don’t intend to do so. Some don’t perceive enough differences between the parties to justify choosing one over the other; others, interestingly, swallowed the “rigged election” nonsense about 2020 and came to the conclusion that voting in elections is stupid and pointless. If you want a too-good-to-be-true outcome next year, Trump losing because his election lies worked a little too well on populist suckers would be justice of the most poetic kind.

But I digress.

According to USA Today, unlikely voters predictably prefer the radical Trump to the establishmentarian Biden, 32-13. So long as the election remains a choice between the two, Trump could conceivably talk some of them into turning out and voting for him on lesser-of-two-evils grounds. That might be the difference between victory and defeat.

But in Kennedy, a disaffected group like unlikely voters suddenly has an attractive protest-vote option who straddles left-wing and right-wing orthodoxy. And they’re quite open to supporting third-party candidacies, as you might expect: Some 27 percent told USA Today they’d consider an independent rather than be forced into a lackluster binary choice.

That’s a lot of potential Trump votes that might end up being diverted to a crank who’s somehow even more alien to the American establishment than the Republican is. If it happens and Trump ends up losing because of it, that’ll be twice that right-wing media has created a populist monster that brought the party’s electoral chances to ruin.

So Chris Stirewalt might be right in the end. (He usually is!) There’s legit potential for RFK to spoil the Trump restoration. But I suspect that the longer undecided voters go without being able to commit to reelecting Biden, the more urgently they’ll look for excuses next year to park their votes elsewhere. Trump might be too much for them to stomach in light of, well, everything, but a third-party candidate with a famous name might not be, kook or not. Democrats should worry.

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.