Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: What’s behind the anti-vaccine activist’s surprising polling strength?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images (2)
Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images (2)

What’s happening

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading anti-vaccine conspiracist and descendent of the Kennedy political dynasty, has garnered a surprising amount of support in polls since announcing his bid to unseat President Biden in the Democratic presidential primary.

While there’s no indication that Kennedy poses any significant threat to Biden’s quest for reelection, he’s received the backing of as much as 20 percent of Democratic-leaning voters in a handful of recent polls — an unexpected figure for anyone challenging an incumbent president, let alone someone best known for fringe beliefs that are well outside the Democratic mainstream.

Kennedy’s father served as U.S. attorney general and was a popular presidential candidate before being assassinated in 1968. He is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy and longtime Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. He first gained notoriety as an aggressive environmental lawyer before emerging as one of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists in the country.

Kennedy was among the most popular proponents of the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism, which helped fuel the rise to the modern anti-vaccine movement. He was also identified by researchers as one of the “disinformation dozen,” a small group of people responsible for spreading the majority of false claims about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Beyond vaccines, Kennedy has claimed that 5G networking technology will be used to “control our behavior,” blamed the U.S. and Ukraine for provoking Russia’s invasion, accused George W. Bush of stealing the 2004 presidential election, called for people who deny climate change to be jailed, suggested antidepressants may be causing school shootings, and strongly insinuated that both his father and uncle were murdered by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Why there’s debate

At first blush, Kennedy’s beliefs can seem antithetical to a Democratic Party that has made combating misinformation such a key focus during the Trump era. But pundits have put forward a variety of theories to explain why up to one-fifth of left-leaning voters say they might support him.

The simplest and most common answer is that many voters simply don’t know much about Kennedy’s fringe views, but have a strong affinity for the Kennedy name. Some commentators also believe that Kennedy's surprising strong polling comes from the fact that a large share of the Democratic base is hoping that Biden won’t be their party’s nominee and they’re eager to back any alternative they’re offered.

But others aren’t so quick to dismiss Kennedy’s support as purely the good fortune of having a famous name and running against a relatively unpopular incumbent. They argue that his anti-establishment views run deep in segments of both political parties. His medical conspiracies appeal to a small subset of the Democratic base that holds negative attitudes toward Big Pharma. Since announcing his run for president, he has tended to downplay his more controversial beliefs in favor of a more general populist message that would likely be more attractive to a wider range of voters.

Kennedy is also getting a boost from some high-profile figures who are well outside the Democratic mainstream. Twitter CEO Elon Musk hosted him for a lengthy conversation on Monday and the company’s founder, Jack Dorsey, has recently endorsed Kennedy for president. Influential voices in right-wing media, including several hosts on Fox News and far-right personalities like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones, have also praised his candidacy — perhaps because they see it as a way of weakening Biden’s chances at winning reelection.

What’s next

Biden remains the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination again. With the party not planning to hold any primary debates, there may be few opportunities for Kennedy or the other challenger in the race, self-help guru and author Marianne Williamson, to gain traction. In an odd twist, though, Kennedy may be in position to win one of the first Democratic primary contests thanks to infighting within the Democratic Party that could cause the president to not appear on the ballot in New Hampshire.


His support may be entirely the result of his famous last name

“There’s plenty of reason to believe his early poll standing is significantly inflated by his famous name. … There is probably no name in American politics that is more golden, particularly among left-leaning Americans.” — Aaron Blake, Washington Post

Most voters aren’t aware of Kennedy’s most extreme beliefs

“Unfortunately for RFK Jr., it seems voters really don’t know who he is, and his support will dwindle once they figure it out.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

He is skilled at leveraging the support of his fringe followers without allowing them to define him

“The Q-anon crowd likes RFK Jr. but he’s smart enough not to openly endorse that particular lunacy. But like Trump, he lets the lunatics line up behind him. Also like Trump, he has a talent for promoting populist views.” — Paul Mulshine, Star-Ledger (N.J.)

Democratic voters are searching for anyone other than Biden to be their nominee

“Regardless of the preferences of the Democratic establishment, many Democratic voters are still not accepting the idea that they’re stuck with Joe Biden.” — James Freeman, Wall Street Journal

He’s getting a boost from conservatives looking to hobble Biden

“Perhaps Republicans are now boosting Kennedy—an eco-warrior who wants to jail his opponents and shut down companies that disagree with him—not out of a sincere desire to see him prevail but to weaken Joe Biden. Or maybe jailing opponents and shutting down dissident companies are now tenets of American conservatism.” — Joe Lancaster, Reason

Kennedy is seizing on widespread distrust of authority that has seeped into the U.S. electorate

“The spread of disinformation about COVID vaccines has occurred in a society characterised by low institutional trust. Figures such as Kennedy … capitalise on this, appealing to those disillusioned with the government’s official narrative. They present themselves as having access to privileged knowledge and understanding.” — Stephanie Alice Baker, Chris Rojek and Eugene McLaughlin, The Conversation

Kennedy’s relative popularity shows how the conspiracist mindset has infected every wing of U.S. politics

“I don’t think RFK Jr., is about to defeat—or will likely even do serious damage—to Joe Biden in 2024. My concern is about the post-Biden future. The sort of conspiratorial populism that Kennedy embraces is on the rise in America. That’s where the energy is. To some degree, we are now seeing that even in Democratic polls. Trump has already taken over the GOP. What happens if the Democratic Party also falls to the siren call of the populist zeitgeist?” — Matt Lewis, The Daily Beast

The media is making him look like a serious candidate by failing to call out his lies

“Major news networks are badly underprepared to interview Kennedy. … Kennedy is a sophisticated political figure, skilled at debate, highly media-trained, and clearly poised to use his presidential run to raise his profile and situate himself as a serious statesman, rather than the health crank he has shown himself to be for so many years. News networks that can’t figure out how to interview someone like Kennedy—which is a matter of asking him about his actions and expressed beliefs and properly contextualizing them, the same as for any other subject—run the risk of doing his advertising for him instead.” — Anna Merlan, Vice

Outside of his zanier beliefs, Kennedy is a talented communicator with an appealing message

“It’ll be a serious challenge, if the Democratic establishment and its media allies can’t quash him. Kennedy has real conviction and charisma, and he’s fiercely independent of many of the party’s reigning pieties — all of which should appeal.” — Editorial, New York Post

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