Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the CNN poll referenced was released on May 25.
Democrats are growing concerned that Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s profile is rising just as President Biden embarks on a challenging campaign to keep the White House out of Republican control.
Kennedy, an anti-vaccine proponent who launched a primary bid against Biden this spring, is doing unexpectedly well in some polls and receiving increasing media attention as a result. He has also been on a press tour this week that included a Twitter Spaces discussion with Elon Musk and digital town hall with journalist Michael Smerconish.
Democrats widely consider Kennedy to be a problematic fringe candidate who freely spreads conspiracy theories. But his relatively decent poll numbers, as well as his media-ready image as an heir to the famous political dynasty, have caused some to worry he could gain steam and potentially distract from the task of reelecting Biden in 2024.
“Democrats would be foolish to mock or belittle RFK Jr. Every time we make fun of those who hold fringe positions, we lose,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist and former campaign aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “The Democratic Party acting smug never works.”
Kennedy has indeed stirred up some untapped anger within his own party; Democrats have seen him rise to double digits in several recent polls, leading some establishment figures to acknowledge the parts of his message that may be resonating with voters.
A recent Fox News survey placed Kennedy at 16 percent support among registered voters. And a CNN poll released on May 25 shows him with 20 percent of support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents.
“Take RFK seriously, Biden,” Ceraso said. “If you don’t, we can create a stronger Republican Party that beats us in 2024. Like Bernie did in 2016, RFK has the potential to activate fringe anger if we mock them.”
On Monday, the environmental lawyer made a series of unconventional campaign moves that caught the media’s attention. He participated in a SiriusXM-streamed interview with Smerconish, where he called himself an “an evidenced-based person” and doubled down on his nonconformist views on vaccines while defending his candidacy.
“It’s not like the Soviet system where the party would, you know, pick the candidates,” he said about his challenge to Biden, arguing that Americans need to see democracy in action.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at an event where he announced his run for president on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
After that, he participated in a Twitter Spaces conversation with Musk, where Kennedy spent portions of the discussion overtly praising him, including saying, “thank you for your service” of buying the platform.
He even suggested that he would take a stricter approach to immigration that puts him closer to former President Trump, saying he is planning on looking into ways that “will seal the border permanently.”
At one point in the discussion, former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who left the Democratic Party to become a Trump-aligned Republican after her own failed presidential bid in 2020, appeared in the online chat.
Democrats have mostly waved off Kennedy’s campaign as a mere distraction. In recent days, however, some have become more upset and outright dismissive about his fondness for espousing theories about politics and science without credible evidence.
“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is able to generate media attention and a certain bit of curiosity because of his name. Otherwise he’s a gadfly and a laughingstock,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way.
Democrats have emphasized the danger of his disputed views toward vaccines after Republicans spent much of the pandemic spreading misinformation and contradicting public health officials.
Some have alluded to Kennedy’s controversial views, such as school shootings being tied to Big Pharma, and coziness with figures such as Musk — Kennedy also picked up an endorsement from Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, this week — as more befitting of a Republican.
“He’s in the wrong party to attract votes centering on COVID conspiracy theories, vaccine phobia and Putin adoration,” Kessler said. “There’s plenty of room at the inn for those views in the Republican Party. He should go there.”
While Kennedy’s profile has increased nationally, there are also conversations playing out in key states that could possibly impact the 2024 race. The early primary calendar changed this year after Biden urged the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to move South Carolina to be the first state, demoting Iowa and New Hampshire.
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Many Democrats in New Hampshire have been outspoken about that move and have criticized Biden for lobbying for a change to the decades-long process. Some progressives in particular believe his decision could open up the pathway for a nontraditional candidate like Kennedy to earn an early-state win, despite the overall scorn from national Democrats about his bid.
“I’m thankful RFK Jr. is bringing a democratic challenge to the stagnant political establishment,” said Cullen Tiernan, a New Hampshire-based labor activist who supported Sanders’s presidential bids, who added that the candidate “has a unique opportunity to tap into our collective imagination and the vision that we can do better.”
“Living in New Hampshire,” Tiernan continued, “I’m still processing that our sitting president would rather pretend we do not exist here than campaign and engage in retail politics and town hall-type questions from voters. It does not instill confidence in his ability to campaign in the general election.”
Tiernan is not alone in that view. Spiritual author and progressive Marianne Williamson, who is also competing against Biden for the nomination, has expressed similar sentiments, and Kennedy suggested that Biden’s fifth-place finish in the state during the last election has contributed to his apathy this time around.
“He’s never done well in New Hampshire,” Kennedy said. “I think he did not want to compete in New Hampshire.”
There’s also the issue of debates. The DNC has declined to greenlight a live debate between Biden and any primary challengers, including Kennedy, who’s just over a decade younger than the president and hasn’t yet been tested in that format.
President Biden is seen following a ceremony on the South Lawn of the Whtie House in Washington, D.C., to honor the Super Bowl LVII champions’ Kansas City Chiefs on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Biden has struggled to maintain high approval ratings during his first term in office, with some making the argument that others should be able to participate in debates against a president who’s had trouble sustaining voters’ enthusiasm. Discontent over Biden and Trump is also reflected in some polls showing high voter appetite for a potential third-party candidate, including a survey from NewsNation/DDHQ this week that showed nearly half of voters would consider such a candidate.
“I think it would be a disadvantage for him to debate me,” Kennedy said about Biden. “I don’t think the optics are good for the American people.”
Still, many Democrats say Kennedy is causing an unnecessary distraction in the early days of the election cycle. They hoped for a relatively easy ascent for Biden to nab the nomination, saving their manpower for a much tougher fight against the eventual Republican nominee in November.
“He’s cobbled together a small and weakly-held coalition of anti-vaxxers, disillusioned Democrats and people who remember his daddy’s name,” said Sawyer Hackett, a Democratic communications consultant and adviser to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
“His message is largely incoherent, and he lacks the political heft to make any discernible impact in the race beyond being a gnat the Biden campaign is trying to ignore,” he said.
–Updated at 8:28 a.m.