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RFK Jr.’s fringe Democratic presidential candidacy, explained

Kennedy, an anti-vaxxer of storied Democratic pedigree, isn’t a serious challenger to Biden — but he’s getting some traction.

Kennedy, in a white shirt and slim blue tie, speaks emphatically into a handheld microphone, his other arm extended in a gesture.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a protest against coronavirus-related restrictions and government policy on August 29, 2020, in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Joe Biden is all but assured to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2024 as the incumbent. But one of his Democratic challengers, anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is gaining a surprising amount of traction for someone who the national party views as a fringe candidate.

Kennedy, who announced his candidacy in April, is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy and son of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. But that’s where his relationship with the Democratic political establishment ends.

Disavowed by members of his own family, the previously celebrated environmental justice lawyer who helped clean up New York’s Hudson River now peddles false conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine, all while receiving the praise of prominent right-wing figures and Silicon Valley billionaires. His campaign is predicated on ending what he says is the “corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is threatening now to impose a new kind of corporate feudalism in our country,” he said in his announcement speech.

He sounds more like a MAGA Republican than a Democrat. And Kennedy himself has acknowledged that he holds controversial views. “I am not an ideal presidential candidate,” he said in April. “I’m not one of these people who said I have to be careful because one day I’m going to be in the White House.”

Despite all of that, Kennedy seems to have struck a chord with voters. A June poll by the Economist and YouGov found that he had a net favorability rating of 19 percentage points, compared to Biden’s minus-9 and former President Donald Trump’s minus-10 net ratings. Kennedy has almost 16 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters on average as of late June and as much as 20 percent support in a single poll, but is still well behind Biden.

That might be a reflection of the fact that Americans still revere the Kennedy name and are willing to give him a chance because of his place in a storied political dynasty, even if they may not know much about his platform. (Upstarts typically poll well initially, but their numbers tend to go down as voters start to learn more about them.) It might also be a signal of Biden’s difficulties defending his record, particularly on the economy, to a party in search of new blood: In an April Associated Press/NORC poll, most Democrats said they didn’t want him to run again, but would back him in a general election if it came to it.

Biden isn’t currently facing any real threat from Kennedy when it comes to winning his party’s nomination. But Kennedy could prove a damaging distraction, particularly if Iowa and New Hampshire defy Biden’s wishes to put South Carolina first on the Democratic primary calendar. If they do, Biden may not appear on the ballot in New Hampshire, and may not have a significant presence in Iowa before the state’s caucuses. That could create an opening for Kennedy — and potentially generate an awkward news cycle for the president as he tries to harness Democratic enthusiasm.

“There is always a pathway,” said J. Ann Selzer, an Iowa-based pollster, of Kennedy’s prospects in the state. “As I say about the caucuses, anyone can come to Iowa and win, and we’ve seen it happen.”

Kennedy has pushed conspiracy theories and won support from powerful allies across the political spectrum

Biden won’t debate Kennedy or any other of his Democratic challengers, as is typical in a primary where an incumbent is running for reelection. But if he did, a debate would reveal stark differences between them.

Kennedy has become one of the leading voices of the anti-vaccine movement. He’s pushed disinformation about vaccines since 2005, when he falsely claimed that some childhood vaccines had dangerous levels of mercury that could cause autism, despite the fact scientists had already proven that mercury levels in those vaccines were not harmful and did not lead to autism. Some of his family members spoke out against his anti-vaccine rhetoric: “He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines,” two of his siblings and his late niece wrote in a 2019 Politico op-ed.

But Kennedy’s profile nevertheless took off during the pandemic. He likened vaccine passports to the Holocaust in remarks at a January 2022 rally in Washington that he later apologized for, and that were even condemned by his wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines. In a bestselling 2021 book, he accused Anthony Fauci, former chief medical adviser to Biden and a member of Trump’s White House coronavirus task force, of using the pandemic to organize a “coup d’état against Western democracy.” He also founded the non-profit Children’s Health Defense, which has become one of America’s most influential anti-vaccine advocacy groups. Facebook and Instagram took down the group’s accounts, but have since reinstated Kennedy’s personal account now that he’s running for president.

Kennedy’s views might resonate with the quarter of Americans who were still skeptical of Covid-19 vaccines as of March 2023. But it’s out of step with the majority who have been vaccinated or plan to get vaccinated. Kennedy seems to recognize that gap, and has largely refrained from discussing his views on vaccines on the campaign trail except in veiled references.

Kennedy’s embrace of conspiracy theories isn’t limited to vaccines. He claims that his father wasn’t killed by Sirhan Sirhan and has pushed for his release from prison, opposed by all but one of his seven siblings. He’s argued that 5G cell phone transmission towers are being used to “harvest our data and control our behavior.” He claimed that Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election. He blames psychopharmaceuticals for mass shootings. And he says the CIA had a role in former President Kennedy’s assassination and that the agency could one day come after him.

Kennedy has drawn powerful allies in advancing his views. Just this week, podcaster Joe Rogan and Twitter CEO Elon Musk tried to publicly goad prominent scientist Peter Hotez (who spent most of the pandemic trying to dispel vaccine disinformation) into debating Kennedy on the subject. Hotez refused, and anti-vaccine activists showed up outside his home to harass him.

Kennedy has also been endorsed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who shares Kennedy’s view that cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is an “exercise in democracy.” He’s received praise from right-wing figures including Alex Jones of Infowars, former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, and Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk. And former Trump aides Steve Bannon and Roger Stone think he would make an ideal running mate for Trump.

Why RFK Jr. could overperform in Iowa and New Hampshire

Kennedy’s menu of fringe beliefs won’t make a winning candidacy. But some Democrats worry that he could win in Iowa and New Hampshire if they hold the first primary contests. While Biden could win the nomination easily without the delegates from those two states, ceding ground to a longshot candidate could still highlight his weaknesses at a moment when he needs to consolidate the party behind him.

The dispute over the primary calendar is still ongoing and may not be resolved until September. The Democratic Party — and Biden — want South Carolina to be the nation’s first contest, arguing that Iowa’s mismanagement of its 2020 caucuses is disqualifying and that South Carolina better reflects the diversity of the party. New Hampshire Democrats say that state law requires them to set the date for the primary ahead of other states’ contests. Biden’s campaign has suggested that he will refuse to be on the ballot in New Hampshire if the state votes before South Carolina.

That could be disastrous not only for his campaign — giving credence to narratives about Biden’s vulnerability to more conservative challengers — but also for other Democrats who are relying on a big name at the top of the ticket to raise voter turnout.

“President Biden not appearing on the New Hampshire primary ballot could cause great harm to his own reelection and all down-ballot Democratic candidates in this key battleground state,” state party chair Ray Buckley said. “We strongly believe President Biden should campaign here in New Hampshire to ensure his reelection and to help elect Democrats at every level of the ticket in 2024.”

The Iowa caucuses are a different beast in the sense that Democrats don’t need Biden’s approval to put his name forward. Scott Brennan, an Iowa member of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, said he’s confident that Iowa Democrats would show their support for the president no matter when they vote.

But Selzer said that it’s too early to rule out the possibility that a candidate like Kennedy could build up his presence in the state and eke out a better-than-expected performance that could be “potentially embarrassing” to Biden.

“It’s going to get a lot of coverage,” she said. “I suspect conservative media will have a heyday: ‘Look how vulnerable Joe Biden is.’ What the long-term lasting consequences [may be] depend on how effectively that is communicated and countered.”

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