Mounting a primary challenge to an incumbent president is perhaps the most difficult task in American politics. It’s so difficult that no one has ever successfully done it in modern history. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is almost certainly not going to break that streak.
The environmental lawyer turned vocal anti-vaccine advocate has floundered in the polls since an initial bounce around his April announcement. The Kennedy campaign insists that there’s a way forward for his candidacy, but it’s unclear what that looks like as President Joe Biden’s lead in national polling has grown to over 50 points ahead of his challenger. However, if there is a playbook for primarying an incumbent president, Kennedy isn’t following it.
Bay Buchanan, the campaign manager for her brother Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary against George H.W. Bush, told Vox that a candidate running against an incumbent president needed four things.
First, “some segment of that population has to feel they’re forgotten, that they are not represented, and the establishment candidate could care less. That makes them angry enough to take the step to vote against them.” The second is that there needs to be “a two-man race.” The third is that the candidate has to have “an issue or two that appeals. It’s got to be a populist. He’s got to reach out and grab the hearts of those who feel nobody speaks for them.”
At that point, once an insurgent has consolidated those voters as well as the small segment of the electorate who will be voting against an incumbent for temperamental reasons, it’s simply a matter of winning the expectations game. This means doing better than the polls and pundits predict in a key early state like New Hampshire.
Kennedy does not seem well positioned to do this at present: The most recent Emerson poll of the Granite State in early August showed Biden with a 53-point lead over him. However, it is not likely that Biden’s name will be on the ballot in the state, which will force voters to write in the incumbent president. This is because of New Hampshire’s efforts to maintain its first-in-the-nation primary over objections from the Democratic National Committee, which will further diminish the state’s importance.
But, if Kennedy can somehow defy the pundits, that’s where a path to the nomination opens up. “Then you can make the case that you can actually do this, and a lot of people vote for a winner, they want to have a sense that you can win,” Buchanan said. “Even though they like you, they think you’re the best, if you can’t win, they just don’t invest their vote.”
While no incumbent president has lost a primary in the modern era of presidential politics, several have come perilously close. In 1976, Gerald Ford didn’t fend off a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan until the convention. In 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s spirited campaign forced incumbent Jimmy Carter into a hotly contested primary, and while Pat Buchanan failed to win a single state against George H.W. Bush in 1992, his strong performance in New Hampshire exposed Bush’s real weaknesses in the general election.
Bob Shrum, a top aide on Edward Kennedy’s 1980 campaign, contrasted the 2024 RFK Jr. campaign with past attempts to mount a challenge to an incumbent. “I think you can make an argument that if Reagan did not pick Schweiker [as his running mate in 1976], he would have been the nominee” instead of Gerald Ford, he said. “And if the hostages [in the US Embassy in Tehran] had not been seized [before] Iowa, creating this kind of vote for Carter to send a message about posture, Kennedy might have prevailed, but those were serious campaigns. This, in my view, is not a serious campaign.”
A successful attempt has to be framed as “a crusade,” not a campaign, and it requires relentless campaigning on the ground, Bay Buchanan said.
That’s not quite what the Kennedy campaign has been doing so far. Party leaders and activists in early states say they’ve heard nothing from the campaign. However, Kennedy campaign manager Dennis Kucinich insisted to Vox that, “We are campaigning vigorously in the first five states … not only New Hampshire and South Carolina, but also Michigan, Iowa, Nevada.” He added at Super Tuesday, in early March 2024, and “delegate-rich states” beyond were also targets. However, Kucinich declined to go into any detail about which voters they were targeting and what type of voters he thought the Kennedy campaign could appeal to. “We’re campaigning everywhere. We’re not ignoring anywhere. And that’s it.”
One thing that makes Kennedy’s campaign different from those in the past is that he has drawn an unusual amount of support from Republicans, who have very positive views of the Democratic presidential hopeful. According to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 55 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Kennedy, compared to only 28 percent of Democrats. Although Kennedy does resemble a more conventional Democrat on some issues like the environment, he vocally breaks from the consensus within his party on key issues like US support for Ukraine, in addition to his anti-vaccine statements. On these issues, his views resemble those of MAGA Republicans far more than mainstream Democrats.
The main funder of a pro-Kennedy super PAC is Timothy Mellon, a conservative billionaire who has been a strong supporter of Donald Trump. The New Republic recently reported that the Kennedy campaign has an elected GOP state representative on payroll in New Hampshire. Anna Chapman, a longtime Republican operative who has worked on a number of GOP campaigns, describes herself on social media as the South Carolina state coordinator for the Kennedy campaign. Chapman did not respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the Kennedy campaign.
Further, at least one veteran Republican operative with high-level experience on multiple presidential campaigns received feelers about interest in working on the Kennedy campaign.
While there are always some crossover voters in primaries, trying to appeal to a significant number of Republicans in a year where Donald Trump is on the ballot facing a vigorous and well-financed field of challengers may not be the most productive strategy. As Buchanan noted, “there’s too much action in our party for them … Republicans are going to be very very focused on choosing their candidates.”
Shrum was even more dismissive and questioned whether there was any strategy behind the Kennedy campaign’s apparent affinity for Republicans. “There’s nothing that screams out that there’s a logic to enlisting all these Republicans and spending all this time with these MAGA Republicans,” he said.
The answer, of course, is that those are the people who will give Kennedy attention. In his April announcement, he spoke for nearly two hours and said, “This is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years.” Since his campaign began, he has become a fixture on podcasts and conservative media while only making sparing appearances on the campaign trail. Kennedy is expected to return to New Hampshire in the next week to appear at an event hosted by former Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts (who mounted an unsuccessful Senate bid in New Hampshire in 2014 after moving to the Granite State).
In an interview last week with Fox News’s Jesse Watters, the longshot candidate bemoaned the fact that he felt that MSNBC and CNN wouldn’t book him to appear on cable television and that Biden would not debate him (no incumbent president has ever debated a primary challenger in American history). The interview took place in New York’s Central Park, not in an early primary state — and Fox News is not exactly the most popular outlet for Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire. As a strategy to pull off an upset victory for the Democratic presidential nomination, it seems flawed. But, simply as a strategy to upset the media gatekeepers who Kennedy thinks have been shunning him for nearly two decades, it makes perfect sense.