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RFK Jr. Is Poised To Tilt The Presidential Race — But It’s Still Not Clear To Whom

Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is expected to influence the outcome of the 2024 rematch between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, but it’s still not evident from whom he will pull more support.

Since Kennedy switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent in October, polling has largely suggested he’s more of a threat to Biden’s campaign than Trump’s. However, several recent polls have found the independent’s presence on the ballot hindering Trump’s candidacy, spurring questions about who Kennedy will eventually take votes from in November.

“Kennedy has, I think, more lasting impact on this race than most people thought he would,” Jon McHenry, GOP polling analyst and vice president at North Star Opinion Research, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “All he really needs to be on is Arizona, Georgia, you know, Nevada, a handful of states, North Carolina, maybe Michigan, Wisconsin. He only needs to be on the ballot in five or six states to have an impact on this, because even if he only takes 3%, that’s enough to swing a bunch of states.”

A NBC News survey released on Sunday showed Trump ahead by two points in a head-to-head matchup with the president, but the race swung by four points to Biden when Kennedy, “Justice for All Party” candidate Cornel West and Green Party contender Jill Stein were included. Kennedy received 13% of the share.

The next day, a Marist poll found Biden leading Trump in a two-way race 51% to 48%. The president’s margin grew to five points with Kennedy, West and Stein on the ballot, and the independent locked up 14% support.

A Quinnipiac survey published on Wednesday indicated that Kennedy’s presence on the ballot didn’t help Trump either, with the two remaining tied in both a two- and five-way race, where the independent notched 16% of the vote. The March version of the poll showed Trump benefiting from a multi-candidate matchup.

Nationally, Trump’s lead against Biden is still slightly larger with Kennedy and other third-party candidates included in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average, shifting from 0.3 to 0.9 points.

In Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania, Trump’s chances increase in five-way races, according to the RCP averages. Conversely, the former president’s margins drop in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan.

Kennedy is currently pulling in anywhere from 6.3% to 10.5% support across all seven swing states, according to the RCP averages.

Pollsters and strategists who spoke with the Daily Caller News Foundation argue that Kennedy’s complex candidacy makes it difficult to predict who he’s pulling more support from.

“It’s not surprising that he appears to take votes from one candidate and then another, because that’s what’s going on in the electorate in the people thinking about whether they’re going to vote for Trump or Biden or RFK. There’s going to be a lot of movement around those three answers depending on what the news of the day is,” Republican strategist Mike McKenna told the DCNF.

“In a normal election — in a two-person election — you would see the sways go back and forth between the candidates, right? It would just be those two, you know, and it would tend to be a zero-sum game,” McKenna added. “But now … it’s a little more mathematically complicated.”

Many attribute Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Stein’s presence on the ballot in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of which Trump won by less than a point.

Kyle Kondik, nonpartisan polling analyst and managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, believes Kennedy’s “complicated” candidacy is one of the reasons why it’s still an “open question” as to whom he’ll siphon off more votes from.

“On one hand he’s got the last name of one of the most famous Democratic Party families in the last century, so naturally, you’d think he would pull from Democrats, and he probably is to some degree,” Kondik told the DCNF. “But also his actual public persona as someone who is basically like anti-establishment and like kind of really critical of public health authorities and critical of the government in certain ways, even though he sometimes comes at it from a left-leaning perspective, that maybe fits more neatly into like what the Republicans’ messaging is right now than the Democrats.”

While McHenry still believes that Kennedy “hurts both candidates pretty equally,” he issued a warning to Republicans about the independent’s candidacy.

“He’s sort of been a darling for Republicans for a while because he’s anti-vaccine, and, ‘yeah, he’s a Democrat who’s running against Biden, that’s great!’ And then he goes out and gets a progressive running mate, and they go, ‘oh, wait, is he actually a liberal?’ Yeah, actually, he is,” McHenry told the DCNF. “This sort of implicit permission to vote for RFK Jr. has the potential to backfire in the end.”

On March 26, Kennedy announced his running mate would be Silicon Valley lawyer Nicole Shanahan, who has a long history of donating to Democratic campaigns and causes. Trump took to Truth Social the day after Kennedy’s announcement, calling Shanahan “even more ‘Liberal’ than him, if that’s possible.”

“Kennedy is a Radical Left Democrat, and always will be!!! It’s great for MAGA, but the Communists will make it very hard for him to get on the Ballot,” Trump wrote at the time. “Expect him, and her, to be indicted any day now, probably for Environmental Fraud! He is Crooked Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, not mine. I love that he is running!”

Kondik echoed some of McHenry’s sentiment, and cautioned that “both campaigns should look at RFK as a threat.”

“I think that the Biden campaign has probably tried to act more on that than the Trump campaign has,” said Kondik. “Maybe [the recent polling is] sort of a wake up call for the Trump campaign to start worrying about RFK too, you know, we know the Biden people are worried about him, and have been for some time.”

Biden’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and various other aligned groups have already launched efforts against Kennedy’s bid for fear that he’ll pull more support from the president’s base than Trump’s.

For instance, the DNC launched a coalition of lawyers to police how independent and third-party candidates secure ballot access. The committee also filed a Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaint against a Kennedy-aligned super PAC in February for helping the independent gather signatures.

Clear Choice PAC, founded by Biden’s old deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanaugh, hired former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer to challenge Kennedy’s position on the battleground state’s ballot, according to The Detroit News.

While Trump’s campaign has mostly refrained from criticizing Kennedy, an affiliated super PAC, MAGA Inc., has recently ramped up efforts against Kennedy, aiming to depict him as being more left-leaning. The super PAC launched a website titled “Radical F—ing Kennedy” on April 15, displaying his liberal views on taxes, guns, climate change and more.

Stefanie Spear, press secretary for the Kennedy campaign, told the DCNF in a statement that they’re “planning on being a spoiler for both Presidents Biden and Trump.”

“We also plan to be a spoiler for the war machine, Wall Street, Big Ag, Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Energy, and the corporate media,” said Spear. “Americans do not have to resign themselves to whatever uninspiring choices the Democratic and Republican establishment gives us. This is the election where lesser-of-two-evils voting ends. For the first time in decades, we have a viable independent candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., running against two deeply unpopular opponents. The American political system no longer runs on binary choice.”

Still, some of those who spoke to the DCNF believe the independent is more of a threat to Biden than Trump, with McKenna arguing Kennedy’s candidacy will likely end up being a “very modest, net negative ” to the president’s reelection bid.

“Our biggest concern right now has to remain Joe Biden, because Joe Biden’s trying to put us in jail,” John McLaughlin, Trump pollster and CEO of McLaughlin & Associates, told the DCNF, referencing Trump’s ongoing New York criminal trial. “In a multi-candidate race, we’re still ahead because we’ve got the strongest base and we’ve got the most intense supporters, but the Biden strategy has shifted from debating us on the issues in the battleground states.”

McLaughlin’s most recent national poll released on April 17 found Trump leading Biden 49% to 45% in a head-to-head matchup. When Kennedy and other third-party contenders were included, the former president’s margin shrank to two points.

A Democratic pollster and redistricting consultant focused on working class racial minorities, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the race, believes Kennedy was a “Trump spoiler” when he first launched his campaign as an independent but is now a “Biden spoiler.”

“Slowly over time, as more and more of his Democratic views became revealed, his traditionally Democratic views, he’s become more and more irksome to Republicans,” the pollster told the DCNF. “We all thought he was going to take votes from Trump. Then when he started doing that, he made himself a repellent to Republicans.”

Neither Trump nor Biden’s campaign respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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Mary Lou Masters

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Mary Lou Masters

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