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  • Cole Nemes

A Long Way From Camelot: How Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Campaign Fits Into an Unenthusiastic Election

Updated: Apr 23

Courtesy of The Boston Globe

On March 26, 2024, third-party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy announced his long-awaited vice presidential nomination. Contrary to some expectations, Kennedy did not choose New York Jets Quarterback Aaron Rodgers or former Minnesota governor and actor Jesse Ventura as his running mate, but Nicole Shanahan. Shanahan has never held elected office but has made a reputation for herself as an attorney, philanthropist, tech-sector leader, and political donor. Particularly, Shanahan was the main monetary force behind the somewhat surprising Super Bowl ad that aired this year, orchestrated by the pro-Kennedy super PAC American Values 2024. According to Forbes, Shanahan acquired most of her wealth from her previous marriage to the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, whose net worth is just north of $120 billion. While Shanahan’s financial arsenal could strengthen the Kennedy campaign’s legitimacy, the overall narrative has largely remained unchanged: he simply has no chance. However, Kennedy does not have to secure the White House to shock the nation.

Many Americans groan over the assumed Presidential matchup between current President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Still, while a fourth Kennedy campaign can be considered America’s savior, others argue that it is nothing but a charade. So, how did he wind up in the presidential mix? Besides being known as the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. initially made a name for himself as an environmental activist and lawyer. He first gained notoriety when he famously fought for the New York City watershed agreement in 1997 and secured other legal victories against agrochemical company Monsanto in 2018 and DuPont in 2019. In addition, Kennedy founded the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999, and it remains the world's largest clean water advocacy organization. Not only has it been the environment, but Kennedy has also advocated for indigenous communities across Latin America and Canada.

On the other hand, Kennedy is not entirely free from controversy. Aside from believing that the 2004 presidential election was rigged and being dubious of the Warren Commission’s report about his uncle’s assassination, Kennedy has also grown his status through his seemingly endless and controversial statements regarding vaccines. It began in 2005 when Kennedy wrote an op-ed that discussed how mercury-containing chemicals in vaccines can cause autism. The article was taken down in 2011, and Salon, the publication that hosted the op-ed, issued a correction article that stressed how Kennedy’s claims were inaccurate. The next instance came during the COVID-19 pandemic when he claimed that those vaccines harmed and killed people. Most recently, Kennedy was quoted in the summer of 2023 as saying that there is “no vaccine that is…safe and effective.” Not only has Kennedy been painted with anti-vax sentiments, but his campaign has as well. Several campaign staffers previously worked for the Children’s Health Defense, a reported anti-vaccine organization that Kennedy has been associated with throughout the years. Additionally, his campaign has been supported by many known anti-vaccine advocates like Steve Kirsch, who asserted that the COVID-19 vaccine was deadly, and Patrick Flynn, who claimed that society has gotten “sicker and sicker” because of vaccines. 

Despite these comments and associations, Kennedy has managed to launch one of the most successful third-party campaigns so far since Ross Perot in 1992. Along with predictable campaign rhetoric like fighting for the middle class and going after big business, Kennedy’s campaign revolves around one central idea: spoiling. “My intention is to spoil it for both of them,” Kennedy said as he pivoted his campaign to a third-party track from a Democratic one last year, hinting at the damage it could do to Biden and Trump. Kennedy understands the grumblings of an America that is unenthusiastic about a 2020 presidential rematch and prides himself as a Washington outsider. He flatters his campaign and his image by promoting that the middle class is not only being squeezed by an aching economy and big business but the overly familiar red and blue faces who seek to butt heads again in the coming election. 

Regarding those red and blue faces, they are not fans. As for former President Trump, his opinions about Kennedy have shifted significantly within the last year. In July 2023, Trump anointed him as “a very smart person…a very smart guy.” However, his description completely changed after Kennedy announced his plans to run as an independent in the fall of that same year. Aligning more with his usual incendiary style, Trump ousted Kennedy as the “most Radical Left Candidate” and Shanahan as “even more ‘Liberal’ than him.” Trump has also framed the Kennedy campaign as “a great service to America,” but only when it concerns siphoning votes away from Biden, their common enemy. From Trump’s comments, it is safe to say that he sees Kennedy as Biden’s problem, not his. As far as the Democrats are concerned, they (abnormally) seem to agree with him.

Similar to Trump, the Biden campaign’s opinions were more visible after Shanahan was announced as Kennedy’s running mate. The Biden campaign believes that their staffers need to work harder to hurt Kennedy’s chances of altering the election in disfavor of the Democrats. These intentions were manifested by the Democratic National Convention (DNC) constructing “war-room type operations” to combat Kennedy’s surprising performance, with the ultimate goal being to make Kennedy “an electoral afterthought.” Furthermore, the Biden campaign and the DNC promote that Kennedy’s campaign could return Trump to the White House, spelling disaster for America. “We learned the lessons of 2000 and 2016,” expressed Lis Smith, a Democratic Party strategist, discussing how third-party candidates have snagged away votes from Democrats in the past. As for Biden himself, he has largely remained silent. A silent strategy is usually appropriate for a third-party candidate, as it avoids free advertising. However, when a third-party candidate, such as Kennedy, gains momentum and media coverage, a growing threat must be addressed.

Perhaps what matters most, though, is how American voters see a potential return to Camelot, the nickname given to the promising yet unfulfilled JFK administration. In December 2023, a Gallup poll found that Kennedy was the most favorable candidate among the five most prominent ones at the time while also floating around double-digits in the polls. As of March 2024, Kennedy emerged as the only viable candidate to be favored more than he wasn’t. Thirty-nine percent of Americans find him favorable, while 36% do not. This compares strongly against Biden and Trump, who are blatantly seen as more unfavorable than favorable (55% and 52% respectively) to the American public. One of Kennedy’s largest bases of supporters comes from young voters between 18-29, with 34% favoring him, surpassing both Biden and Trump in the same age group. The bloc itself, mostly students, is not all uniform though, and has differing opinions on Kennedy as a presidential candidate. According to a Wall Street Journal article, student opinions about Kennedy vary, ranging from thinking he is a strategic distraction to believing he actually could win to simply finding him just plain weird. For the most part, Americans admire his tertiary status in an election where both candidates are historically unfavorable.

Kennedy’s road to the White House (or spoiling it) is not as easy as courting public opinion though, as his campaign still faces major electoral challenges. For one, it’s getting on the ballot in the first place. To date, Kennedy is currently set to appear in only three states–Utah, Hawaii, and New Hampshire. This is because every state has different laws when it comes to independent candidates, making the ticket-seeking process a national predicament. Secondly, the Kennedy campaign is not as affluent as Biden's or Trump’s. Although he does not have the entire DNC or the Trump family fortune behind him, Kennedy could potentially tighten the money gap by having access to Shanahan’s deep wallets. Lastly, the Kennedy family has consistently denigrated the campaign, calling it “perilous” and “dangerous.” While his last name may seem like a bonus, when the Kennedy family attacks a campaign, let alone one led by a Kennedy, public support and private backing are suddenly much harder to find.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a befuddling candidate. The mix of an illustrious environmental law track record with concerning statements about vaccines both under the umbrella of the Kennedy family name is an odd third choice in such a loathsome presidential election. However, Americans seem to take anything they can get at this point. While he may not be able to compete come November, Biden and Trump at least acknowledge the threat that Kennedy poses and understand how his rising popularity could tip the scales of the electoral college. This, at the bare minimum, makes him a genuine factor to consider. 

Americans should look at the 2024 Kennedy campaign not just with amusement but with reflection. A reflection on a system that has produced two candidates that few people want for the presidency (again). A reflection on the possibility that an independent candidate could drastically shake up a presidential race in an era marked by societal polarity. Most importantly, after Americans pencil in their long-awaited choice, they should happily reflect on how they won’t have to worry about a mess like this for another four years. 


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