Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the black sheep of the family whose name is synonymous with royalty in Democratic politics, is mounting a primary challenge against President Biden for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
There is little chance that RFK Jr. — the son of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy — will defeat a sitting president to win the nomination, especially given the fringe positions he assumes on most issues. That being said, RFK Jr.’s entrance into the race could weaken an already-vulnerable President Biden ahead of the general election.
The latest general election polls, while premature, highlight the fragility of President Biden’s position. A recent horserace poll finds former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, in a virtual dead-heat with the sitting president, who trails his predecessor by 1 point, 44 percent to 43 percent, among registered voters nationwide.
In turn, if RFK Jr. mounts an aggressively negative primary campaign against Biden, it could very well hobble him in the general election — like in 2016, when a tough Democratic primary race against an outsider weakened Hillary Clinton when she faced Donald Trump in the general.
To be sure, RFK Jr.’s bid is still a longshot, in part because his issue stances are far outside of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, with one notable exception: the environment. Many of his climate positions, particularly on clean energy and land conservation, are aligned with his party’s platform. He has also earned genuine praise from the left for his efforts to protect the Hudson River and was once considered to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
But in many other ways, RFK Jr. is a fringe politician and harbors a number of dangerous beliefs. He is a prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, who was banned from social media platforms for spreading what some in his own family have called “dangerous misinformation,” and a government conspiracy theorist.
There is an element of RFK Jr.’s messaging that plays into what the far-left of the Democratic Party believes, particularly with respect to his populist economic positions. He is anti-corporate power and has railed against government bank bailouts, which could very well strike a responsive chord with many progressives, who tend to be lukewarm toward President Biden.
Indeed, while announcing his presidential bid, RFK Jr. vowed to “end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is threatening now to impose a new kind of corporate feudalism on our country.”
Furthermore, RFK Jr. has a unique asset: his last name. Even though many of his siblings and living relatives have disavowed him and are openly backing Biden, the family brand will likely still be of some value to RFK Jr.
A recent poll found that 14 percent of 2020 Biden voters would vote for RFK Jr. in a Democratic primary — which is rather remarkable given his lack of political experience and record, and suggests that a substantial portion of RFK Jr.’s support is due to name recognition alone.
Separately, while RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine positions may be anathema to many Democratic voters, more than one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans (including 31 percent of independents, and even 12 percent of Democrats) report being unwilling or uncertain to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Again, there is no indication that RFK Jr. has a realistic chance of winning the Democratic Primary. But if he can bring enough anti-Biden Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who are government skeptics into his fold, he may ultimately be able to garner around 25 percent of the primary vote, which is more than enough to damage President Biden in the general election.
Somewhat ironically, the last sitting president who faced a significant primary challenge was Jimmy Carter in 1980, who was challenged by RFK Jr.’s uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Eerily similar to President Biden, Carter was an unpopular incumbent, whose first term was marred by high inflation and geopolitical crises.
Carter was able to survive Kennedy’s challenge, but he limped into his general election contest against Ronald Reagan and ultimately lost in one of the greatest landslides in American history, winning just six states and 49 electoral votes.
Of course, Ted Kennedy was a formidable challenger, and his legacy is one of the greatest in American politics. He served in the Senate for decades, earning a reputation as a progressive champion as well as a bipartisan dealmaker, and is remembered by members of both parties as an extraordinary leader.
In nearly every respect, RFK Jr. couldn’t be further from the man his uncle was. Still, the younger Kennedy has the potential to follow in his uncle’s footsteps: He could shake up the Democratic Party’s primary process at a time when its leader is vulnerable.
Even if everything goes right for the pariah of America’s most famous political dynasty, he still won’t win the primary. But RFK Jr. may very well complicate matters for President Biden, who would benefit from a cakewalk primary ahead of a likely rematch against Donald Trump in the general election.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is: “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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