On March 26, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the former environmental lawyer turned anti-vax agitator, addressed a crowd of around 150 people at downtown Oakland’s Kaiser Center. 

“I’m so proud to introduce to you the next vice president of the United States,” Kennedy said. 

Nicole Shanahan, Kennedy’s new running mate, is the multimillionaire former wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. She paid for a controversial Kennedy TV spot during the Super Bowl that likened the candidate to his uncle, John F. Kennedy.  

Thus far, Kennedy has run a shambolic and incoherent presidential campaign. He started off as a declared Democrat, but failed to gain traction against incumbent Joe Biden. After dropping out of the primary, Kennedy went independent. It’s not exactly a professional operation. Hours after he announced his VP pick, social media users found that his campaign website allowed people to make events for the candidate without vetting, leading to some embarrassing possibilities

Let’s be clear: this man is not going to win the White House. But Kennedy could have a major effect on the race by siphoning off votes from one or both major candidates. The question is which one will be more impacted. While it once looked like Kennedy was going to peel off Republican voters, recent polling shows that Democrats may be more likely to lose supporters to the upstart campaign.

Kennedy could have a major effect on the race by siphoning off votes from one or both major candidates. The question is which one will be more impacted.

For former President Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, Kennedy does present a challenge. A Jan. 30, 2024 report from Politico found that more of Kennedy’s donors above $200 were from Trump 2020 donors than Biden’s, $224,000 to $105,000. 

Following the Shanahan announcement, Trump opined on his Truth Social platform that Kennedy was “the most Radical Left Candidate in the race, by far” and “a big fan of the Green New Scam, and other economy killing disasters.”

“I guess this would mean he is going to be taking votes from Crooked Joe Biden,” Trump added, “which would be a great service to America.”

But that might be posturing from Trump. The anti-vax views Kennedy is famous for are more a far right issue these days. Kennedy’s COVID-19 views make him a more palatable version of pandemic era right-wing politics to the conservative leaders in the tech industry who have been some of the most fervent supporters of the campaign. 

It does seem that Kennedy has these voters in mind. He appeared on CNN with host Erin Burnett and claimed that President Joe Biden is more a threat to democracy than election result-denying Trump and asked former Democratic representative turned far-right media personality Tulsi Gabbard to join the ticket before pivoting to Shanahan. Gabbard declined, she told ABC News; she is nothing if not a savvy opportunist and is likely holding out for the possibility she’s tapped by Trump. (As for why Biden poses such a threat to democracy, Kennedy told Burnett, it’s because the president has “censored” him.)  But now the tide may be turning and RFK might be a threat to Biden instead. Voters aren’t happy with the president. Despite the economy’s improvement over the last year, Biden’s poll numbers are historically bad for an incumbent. No sitting president in modern memory has been reelected with approval numbers under 40%; Biden registers at around 38%

For Democrats, it’s a bad moment for a third party candidate to start gaining traction. Average polling on the election aggregated by FiveThirtyEight with all three candidates gives Trump a constant lead over Biden. As The Hill reported

A Quinnipiac University poll taken March 21-25 showed Biden ahead by 3 points when only facing Trump. But Trump took a 1-point lead when Kennedy — who received 13 percent support — West and Stein were included.

There’s no reason Kennedy shouldn’t run for president and nothing wrong with participating in our democracy. If he’s a real challenge to Biden then that’s the president’s fault. A crank without a coherent message who’s dabbled in conspiracies holding around 10% of the electorate in a close election is a failure by the major parties to properly manage their campaigns. Kennedy has the name but not much else. A successful president should have a record to run on. 

But that’s not the campaign message that Biden and the Democrats are deploying in 2024. Increasingly it appears that they’re rolling out the threat machine to vote-scold an uninspired electorate into giving them another shot. It worked in 2020, after four years of Trump and a global pandemic. It’s unlikely to work after four years of Biden marked by half-broken promises and, most recently, unflinching support for the Israeli military’s program of massacres and starvation of a captive population, half of whom are children, in Gaza. 

Increasingly it appears that they’re rolling out the threat machine to vote-scold an uninspired electorate into giving them another shot.

If Democrats lose in November, it won’t be the first time in the last 25 years the party has fumbled the ball and missed what should have been an easy win. Already, as The Washington Post reported, donors are starting to preemptively excuse Biden’s campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez for a Trump victory because “we all are prepared to lose.” 

That’s undeniably true, however well or badly the campaign is run the rest of the way to Nov. 5. In large part the reason for this complacency is that, in Kennedy, Democrats have a pre-made scapegoat they can blame for their failures. 

Kennedy isn’t as sympathetic of a character as Ralph Nader, who was unfairly blamed for George W. Bush stealing the 2000 election. But as we saw then, and in 2016 with Jill Stein, Democrats are eager to vilify any third party candidate they can to avoid confronting their own culpability in their losses. If Biden loses to Trump in November, expect attacks on Kennedy for the very act of running — whether or not he’s a factor in the outcome.

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