Could RFK Jr.'s independent run sink Trump's White House hopes?

The former president’s allies encouraged the scion of America's most famous political dynasty — and may now regret that decision.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking in Philadelphia on Monday. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg)
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For months, Republicans watched with glee as Democrats fretted over whether Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential bid might cause trouble for President Biden’s reelection effort.

But after Kennedy switched from the Democratic primary to an independent run on Sunday, the tables have turned. Kennedy’s candidacy could be as much a problem for the GOP as it is for Democrats, if not more so.

Right-wing encouragement of Kennedy’s candidacy

When Kennedy — the son of former U.S. attorney general and Sen. Robert Kennedy — announced his campaign in April, CBS News reported that Trump ally Steve Bannon had encouraged him to do so for months, hoping to cause trouble for Biden.

Kennedy also met with Trump loyalists Roger Stone and Michael Flynn at a far-right political event in July 2021, according to a social media photo which has since been deleted.

Bannon did not respond to a text message from Yahoo News about Kennedy. But regardless of Bannon’s role, many Republicans were excited as Kennedy’s support in polling of likely Democratic primary voters quickly spiked to 20% after his announcement.

Kennedy was praised by House Republicans at a congressional hearing in July, who used his concerns about social media content moderation to amplify their message that big tech is censoring Americans.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, lauded Kennedy at the hearing with a lengthy and reverential introduction, painting Kennedy as someone who is “challenging the status quo.”

Robert F. Kennedy, right, and John F. Kennedy

Democrats in the committee lamented Kennedy’s appearance. “You are here for cynical reasons, to be used politically by [Republicans], to embarrass the current president of the United States,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “It brings shame on a storied name that I revere.”

Kennedy fails to take off among Democrats

Kennedy’s appeal among Democrats never went any higher. In fact it’s come down since his announcement, falling to 11% a month ago.

Kennedy’s last name may evoke fond memories of his famous forebears, but his anti-vaccine activism and penchant for conspiracy theories are a big turnoff for most Democratic voters. Kennedy is also a staunch critic of America’s national security apparatus — which Trump allies call the “deep state.” Kennedy also believes that the CIA had a role in the assassination of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy’s switch to an independent candidacy is a recognition that his brand of politics does not have much purchase among Democrats, and that there may be a bigger pool of votes among Republicans and independents for him to tap into.

Kennedy himself said recently: “I take more votes from President Trump than I do from President Biden.”

A rally attendee holds a folder with negative stickers about former President Donald Trump
Anti-Trump sentiment is evident at political rally in Philadelphia with 2024 presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr., Oct. 9. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

Frankenstein’s monster?

Over the past several months, Kennedy has gravitated toward media outlets and political celebrities on the right more than the left.

He’s appeared regularly on Fox News. He’s gone on Tucker Carlson’s social media interview show. And he’s aligned himself with Elon Musk over issues of social media content moderation and free speech.

Musk — who bought Twitter for $46 billion and turned it into X, which has lost considerable value — now may be prepared to spend money boosting Kennedy’s candidacy, Politico reported Tuesday.

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All of this adds up to a Kennedy candidacy animated much more by issues that drive voters on the right than the left. So if Kennedy were to run against Trump and Biden, it’s possible he would cut into Trump’s support more than Biden’s.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week showed 59% of Republicans have a favorable view of Kennedy, and only 35% are unfavorable. Democrats, in that poll, are unfavorable toward Kennedy by 46% to 40%.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
RFK Jr. makes his campaign announcement in Philadelphia, Oct. 9. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

In recognition of Kennedy’s growing appeal to voters on the right, the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign both began publicly attacking the former Democrat this week.

The RNC called Kennedy a “radical Democrat.” The Trump campaign called him “liberal.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy is set to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Las Vegas later this month.

“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has a unique voice in advocating for the defunding of the weaponized bureaucracy and ensuring the constitutional right of medical freedom,” CPAC chief Matt Schlapp — another Trump ally — announced Friday.