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Kennedy regarded as potential spoiler in US presidential election

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. waves to supporters after speaking at a campaign stop in Austin, Texas, May 13, 2024.
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. waves to supporters after speaking at a campaign stop in Austin, Texas, May 13, 2024.

There are few things the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree on. One is the presidential candidacy of activist-lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Both the Biden and Trump camps see Kennedy as a potential spoiler in this November's election.

About half of registered voters have told pollsters that if given the chance, they would replace both Biden and Trump on this year's ballot.

"If you picture what this country is going to look like in November if either President Trump or President Biden won, the division is going to continue," Kennedy said at a California campaign event to introduce his running mate, 38-year-old attorney and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan. "The anger, the vitriol, the chaos, the polarization is going to worsen. The only way to end that is through my successful candidacy."

Neither Kennedy nor Shanahan has ever held elective office.

Kennedy's father was Robert F. Kennedy, a former U.S. attorney general and a senator, and a major contender in the 1968 Democratic Party presidential primary until he was assassinated. His uncle was President John F. Kennedy, slain while in office in 1963.

"Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not going to be the next president," predicts Georgetown University Associate Professor Hans Noel, echoing the consensus of his fellow political scientists.

What worries the Biden and Trump campaigns is the possibility of Kennedy on the ballot in the half-dozen or so swing states where his mere thousands of votes could "change the outcome of that state. Then of course, that tips the direction of that state — if that state is large enough — and the ultimate election is fairly close, which is what we expect. Then, it could change the outcome of the race," Noel tells VOA.

During a recent appearance on MSNBC, Kennedy declared "I'm going to be on the ballot in every state. I'll be on the ballot in every state by July."

A Kennedy for president viewed as potential spoiler
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Kennedy's team declined VOA's request to make the candidate or a surrogate available to respond to questions, saying "the campaign has decided to only grant interviews to U.S press with targeted U.S. audiences at this time."

The Kennedy clan "is not happy at all that he's running, and they've made a number of efforts to make that very clear," notes Noel.

Biden, during a recent campaign appearance in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, was surrounded by Kennedy family members, including the independent candidate's sister, Kerry Kennedy, who said "We want to make crystal clear our feeling that the best way forward for America is to reelect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to four more years."

Candidate Kennedy's beliefs about vaccines, the origins of COVID-19, and the assassinations of his father and uncle have attracted some supporters, including those who said they previously voted for Trump or Biden.

In recent weeks, Kennedy attracted the most media attention not for his positions on any political issue but for a revelation from a 2012 deposition for a divorce. In it, he said cognitive issues that had harmed his earning potential could have been "caused by a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died."

In a social media post after the brain worm wriggled into the headlines across the country, Kennedy quipped, "I offer to eat 5 more brain worms and still beat President Trump and President Biden in a debate."

Political pundits are split on whether Kennedy poses more of a threat to Trump or Biden.

"Kennedy is much more popular among Republicans than he is among Democrats right now. But that's probably mostly because he's a Democrat or former Democrat who says bad things about other Democrats," said Noel. "And, so, Republicans like to hear that, and they think that sounds interesting. But they're not going to vote for that over Donald Trump."

The Republican National Committee, attempting to dissuade conservatives who oppose abortion from considering Kennedy as an alternative to Trump, stated, "There is exactly zero daylight between the abortion extremism of RFK Jr. and Crooked Joe Biden."

The Democratic National Committee filed a complaint against Kennedy in February with the Federal Election Commission alleging a political action committee was illegally coordinating with the independent candidate's campaign to get him on additional state ballots.

Biden's party also portrays Kennedy as a "spoiler for Donald Trump," according to Matt Corridoni, a DNC spokesperson.

"RFK Jr.'s campaign isn't building a plan or a strategy to get 270 electoral votes. They're building one to help Trump return to the Oval Office," he says.

The New York Times calls Kennedy the "X factor" in this year's presidential election, noting that the latest public opinion survey, organized by the newspaper The Philadelphia Inquirer and Siena College, shows him polling stronger than any third-party candidate in decades. The poll has Kennedy being supported by about 10% of registered voters in the battleground states, drawing equally from both Biden and Trump.