Spoiler alert: RFK Jr. embraces the chaos, has Democrats ‘paranoid’ he’ll cost Biden

A presidential election rematch in 2024 between Joe Biden and Donald Trump has helped pave the way for renewed interest in third-party candidates. The most dominant interloper is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is now polling at a healthy 11.7% and is being taken seriously, particularly by the Democratic National Committee. This cycle has also seen No Labels threaten, and then fail, to field an alternative candidate, which nonetheless points to voters seeking an alternative to the status quo. This Washington Examiner series, Three’s a Crowd, will look at how and why third-party candidates could play a major spoiler come November. Part one will take a closer look at Kennedy.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.‘s quixotic battle to gain ballot access in all 50 states could spoil either President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump‘s reelection efforts in November.

The 70-year-old former Democrat-turned-independent maintains the public is put off by the standard-bearers put forth by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and therefore, his campaign is needed as another option for voters.

After No Labels’s surprise announcement on Thursday that it was ending its unity ticket after proving unable to find a candidate to join the campaign, Kennedy is the top third-party candidate both political parties will have to fend off.

Kennedy is unlikely to win the 2024 election, but he could peel off enough support to throw the election, though some strategists think Kennedy could hurt Biden more than Trump.

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Just several thousand votes could doom either campaign in a battle that will come down to six or seven battleground states. In several of these states, Biden defeated Trump by less than 1 percentage point during the 2020 election.

In his first presidential matchup against Trump, Biden won Arizona by less than 11,000 votes, Georgia by less than 12,000 votes, Wisconsin by a little over 20,680 votes, and Nevada by roughly 33,600 votes.

Kennedy’s campaign has not shied away from embracing the chaos factor in 2024.

“We are planning on being a spoiler for both President Biden and President Trump,” Stefanie Spear, Kennedy’s campaign press secretary, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “We also plan to be a spoiler for the war machine, Wall Street, Big Ag, Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Energy, and the corporate media.”

“Americans do not have to resign themselves to whatever uninspiring choices the Democratic and Republican establishment gives us,” Spear said.

Democrats aren’t taking Kennedy or any other third-party candidate campaign lightly this election cycle after some accused the Green Party’s Jill Stein of costing Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.

The Democratic National Committee filed a Federal Election Commission complaint in February against American Values 2024, a super PAC backing Kennedy’s campaign, for accepting $15 million in “unlawful, in-kind” contributions to gain ballot access. It filed another FEC complaint against Kennedy in early March, alleging American Values 2024 failed to disclose $10 million in loans and $9.65 million in loan repayments to Kennedy donor Gavin de Becker properly.

The DNC has also created a team to go on the offense against third-party candidates while Biden allies have created the Clear Choice super PAC to thwart outsiders from affecting the election.

“We’re focused on making sure he’s playing by the rules. And we’re focused on educating voters about his candidacy being a spoiler,” said Matt Corridoni, a spokesman for the DNC. “He’s being propped up by Donald Trump’s biggest donor. And that is what people need to know in this race.”

The committee launched mobile billboards trolling Kennedy for sharing his biggest donor, Timothy Mellon, with Trump while he met with fundraisers in Florida this week. Mellon has given $20 million to American Values 2024 this cycle. He was a top Trump funder in 2020 and has already given $15 million to Trump’s super PAC, MAGA Inc., in Trump’s reelection bid.

When Kennedy announced Nicole Shanahan, an attorney and former Democratic donor, as his vice presidential pick, the DNC hosted a press call denouncing the ticket and slamming Kennedy for his past flirtations with conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy moments after the event concluded.

From left to right: Jacob Strumwasser, Nicole Shanahan, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Cheryl Hines stand together onstage during a campaign event on March 26, 2024, in Oakland, California. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Other Democratic groups have attacked Kennedy’s campaign as a spoiler.

“Democrats are right to take the third-party threat very seriously. Donald Trump is openly rooting for both No Labels and RFK to drain Democratic votes,” said Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, in a statement to the Washington Examiner.  “He remembers how third parties won just enough votes in 2016 to allow him to capture the three Blue Wall states and the presidency. Democrats learned the hard way how dangerous third-party spoilers can be in a closely divided electorate and are mobilizing allies across the anti-Trump coalition to prevent third parties from helping Trump win again.”

Tony Lyons, the co-chairman of American Values 2024, says the Kennedy campaign is running not just to spoil the election but to, in fact, win the election outright.

“Bobby has really, really strong polling numbers despite all of these tactics and tricks that have been used to fool the American public. So I think people should get used to the fact that he’s a serious candidate, that he’s going to take votes from both parties,” Lyons said.

In a five-way matchup of Biden, Trump, Kennedy, Stein, and Cornel West, Kennedy polls at an average of 10.5%, according to RealClearPolitics. And in the media outlet’s three-way matchup between Biden, Trump, and Kennedy, he polls at 11.7%.

There are also some suggestions that Kennedy could take away enough Latino voters from Biden in battleground states such as Nevada and Arizona.

“The Biden campaign already has a Hispanic problem. There’s a shift towards the GOP. RFK exacerbates that problem,” Alfonso Aguilar, the director of Hispanic engagement for the American Principles Project, told the Washington Examiner. “Because what we’re seeing is that when you look at a three-way race, Trump doesn’t lose Hispanic support Biden does.”

A March poll from the APP of Hispanic voters in Arizona and Nevada showed Trump and Biden in a close race. In Arizona, the two candidates were tied at 46% in a hypothetical matchup, while in Nevada, Biden is leading Trump, 42% to 40%.

That same survey also notes that when Kennedy is added, he polls at 17% in Arizona, while Trump is at 40% and Biden at 37%. In Nevada, Kennedy is at 14%, while Trump and Biden are tied at 37%.

But other experts caution that with six months until Election Day, it is unclear which candidate Kennedy will detract from the most.

“Nobody really knows what it’s going to be, but Democrats are paranoid,” said Bernard Tamas, an associate professor of political science at Valdosta State University and the author of The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties. “So they’re always worried that something is going to cause their candidate to lose.”

A March Quinnipiac University poll further confirmed Tamas’s comment. A five-person matchup showed Trump at 39% and Biden at 38%. Kennedy garners 13%, Stein pulls 4% support, and West is at 3%.

“Way too close to call on the head-to-head and even closer when third-party candidates are counted. The backstretch is months away, and this is about as close as it can get,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy.

Trump and the Republican National Committee have not gone on the offense against Kennedy to the extent of the Democrats. But the former president has attacked Kennedy and said he’s more of a threat to Biden.

“I think he actually hurts Biden. He’s very liberal, and I think he probably hurts Biden,” Trump told Hugh Hewitt during his radio show Thursday.

Yet Kennedy faces several problems in his long-shot campaign.

Kennedy’s famous family members have lined up to denounce his campaign and support Biden.

He is only technically on the ballot in one state: Utah. But his campaign said he had collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot in New Hampshire, Nevada, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Idaho.

In Nevada, his campaign faces questions about whether he will need to recollect signatures to meet the threshold to appear on the ballot. Kennedy filed for ballot access in Nevada without naming a vice presidential candidate on his ticket, which could nullify the more than 15,000 signatures he already collected.

The Kennedy campaign called the tactic “the epitome of corruption” in a statement late last month.

“After successfully collecting all of the signatures we need in Nevada, the DNC Goon Squad and their lackeys in the Nevada Secretary of State’s office are outright inventing a new requirement for the petition with zero legal basis,” Kennedy campaign ballot access attorney Paul Rossi said.

“The Nevada statute does not require the VP on the petition. The petition does not even have a field for a VP on it,” Rossi continued. “The state confirmed that the petition does not require a VP in writing on Nov. 14. The state approved our petition without a VP on it in writing on Jan. 9.” 

Yet, with Shanahan on the ticket, she could potentially finance the heavy costs associated with gaining ballot access. She had already helped fund a pro-Kennedy Super Bowl ad from American Values 2024 by giving $4 million.

A political novice, Kennedy walked back comments recently, which may show he is not quite ready for the glare of national media attention.

Kennedy said Biden was a bigger threat to democracy than Trump in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett. The comments came as he criticized the Biden administration’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation on social media.

Trump “trying to overthrow the election clearly is a threat to democracy,” Kennedy told Burnett on Monday. “But the question was, who is a worse threat to democracy? And what I would say is … I’m not going to answer that question. But I can argue that President Biden is, because the First Amendment, Erin, is the most important.”

The comments were disputed by Democrats, historians, and political experts. One day later, Kennedy changed his tune.

“What I said was that I can make this argument, and I didn’t say definitively whether I believed one or the other was more dangerous to democracy. I did say that I don’t believe either of them are going to destroy democracy,” Kennedy said Tuesday on NewsNation’s CUOMO. “Both sides are telling us the other guy is the end of the republic. But you know, they’re both lame-duck presidents.”

His campaign later disavowed a fundraising email sent out this week in which he said rioters who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack were “activists” who were “stripped of their constitutional liberties.” The campaign also called for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was compared to the Jan. 6 rioters and Ed Snowden, in the email.

Kennedy’s campaign blamed the error on a contractor, now fired, and said it didn’t reflect Kennedy’s views on Thursday.

One day later, Kennedy issued a statement clarifying his comments on Jan. 6.

“It is quite clear that many of the January 6 protestors broke the law in what may have started as a protest but turned into a riot,” he said. “Because it happened with the encouragement of President Trump, and in the context of his delusion that the election was stolen from him, many people see it not as a riot but as an insurrection.”

“Like many reasonable Americans, I am concerned about the possibility that political objectives motivated the vigor of the prosecution of the J6 defendants, their long sentences, and their harsh treatment,” he continued. “That would fit a disturbing pattern of the weaponization of government agencies — the DoJ, the IRS, the SEC, the FBI, etc. — against political opponents.”

Despite his lack of political experience, Kennedy remains one of the strongest third-party candidates in this cycle, with the potential to rival Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign.

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Kennedy’s popularity and the Democratic response to stopping him is a testament to the growing frustration with the nation’s two-party system, said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America.

“There is a small but significant portion of the electorate that seems to be genuinely interested in third-party candidacies this election,” according to Drutman, who wrote Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. “A lot of people seem to feel like the political system is deeply, deeply broken, which is why I think RFK Jr. is resonating.”

Roughly a quarter of the country holds unfavorable views of both Biden and Trump, according to a March survey from the Pew Research Center. Just over 40% of younger adults, aged 18 to 29, had an unfavorable opinion of Biden and Trump. Only 2% had a favorable view of both candidates.

“If Americans are ever going to escape the hammerlock of the two parties and their corrupt backers, now is the time to do it,” said Spears, Kennedy’s spokeswoman. “These are the two most unpopular candidates in living memory.”

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