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The face of America’s third party

Robert Kennedy Jr. is the strongest third-party presidential candidate in 32 years. Many of his supporters are vaccine skeptics, and the Democrats are panicking.

In 1960, America elected its first Catholic president in John F. Kennedy. He broke new ground not only with his religion, but also through opening for a political dynasty with an almost unique presence in American politics. He convinced the U.S. Senate to approve his brother Robert as attorney general, and in 1962 their youngest brother, Edward, or “Ted,” was elected U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

After President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Robert continued to serve as attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson; in 1964 he successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in New York. He served alongside his brother Ted while running for president in 1968. He was killed while on the campaign trail, leaving Ted as the de facto head of the political family.

Ted won his first re-election as Senator in 1968 and kept on winning every sixth year until his death in 2009. He made a couple of unsuccessful runs for president, officially the latest in 1980, but the movie Primary Colors hints that Ted Kennedy—portrayed by Larry Hagman under the character name Fred Picker—had plans to enter the race in 1992.

Since then, no Kennedy has been close to the presidential campaign trail, until 2024 when Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his namesake father’s third child, decided to run.

Much like his dad and his uncles, Kennedy Jr. has made a splash in politics. However, unlike the previous generation in his family, he is running as an independent. In doing so, his impact on the 2024 presidential race has been greater than it would have been if he had stayed in the Democratic party. It is not the case that he has a path to the White House; his impact is primarily as an unusually strong independent candidate.

His status de facto turns him into the third-party candidate of the 2024 election. As such, he represents a phenomenon that is both new and old, but which has been mostly marginal in presidential elections. In what can best be described as a mutually beneficial entente, the Democratic and Republican parties have done their best to dominate the national political landscape in general, and presidential races in particular.

To find a president who served only one party that was neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, we have to go back all the way to Zachary Taylor and his vice president Millard Fillmore. Taylor, who represented the Whigs, won the 1848 election to become America’s 12th president. When he died in office in 1850, Fillmore, also a Whig, was sworn in as his successor.

The last president to represent another party than the ‘Big Two’ was Andrew Johnson, who was sworn in as president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson and Lincoln both represented the National Union, while also representing, respectively, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Since Republican Ulysses Grant’s victory in the 1868 presidential election, American politics has been overwhelmingly dominated by the Big Two. That is not to say there haven’t been third-party efforts: as far back as 1912, Teddy Roosevelt made a much-publicized attempt to run for the Progressive Party. Roosevelt had served two terms as a Republican president and failed to win his party’s subsequent nominations. At the time, there was no constitutional ban on a president serving more than two terms.

After Roosevelt’s endeavor into third-party politics, the Big Two were relatively safe from outside competition. One reason is that the Democrats and the Republicans are not formal parties in the way Europeans know them. It is more appropriate to think of them as coalitions of mostly like-minded people with political ambitions. This has allowed them to absorb currents of significant dissent that in Europe would have resulted in splits and formations of new parties.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who according to some polls attracts almost 10% of prospective voters, is the most formidable third-party candidate since 1992—counting, again, his independent status as a third-party rail in the 2024 election. Back then, Ross Perot grabbed 18.9% of the votes. Given his right-of-center profile, it is widely believed that he cost incumbent Republican George Bush Sr. the election. In doing so, he paved the way for Bill Clinton to not only be a two-term Democrat president but to rebuild the Democratic party into the radical political machine it is today.

Although they benefited from the third-party candidate in 1992, Democrats are mortally worried that they will be on the receiving end, so to speak, of a third-party candidate. After the 2016 election, many disgruntled Democrats blamed Green Party candidate Jill Stein for absorbing so many left-leaning votes that Republican Donald Trump could defeat his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton.

In reality, Stein got less than 1.5 million votes. She made some of her strongest inroads in the electorate in states that Clinton won. Those who say she cost Clinton the election do not take into account that another third-party candidate in 2016 likely took many more votes away from Trump: Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party won the support of almost 4.5 million people. My own, admittedly unscientific, experience with Gary Johnson voters was that almost all of them were defecting Republicans who could not bring themselves to vote for Trump.

In 2020, the third-party phenomenon was less prominent. Added together, the Libertarian and Green Party candidates got only about 2.5 million votes. It looks like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is going to have significantly more of an impact. He is running a highly visible campaign, and judging from assorted opinion polls it looks like he could make the biggest third-party splash since 1992.

Most presidential opinion polls only include Biden and Trump, but when Kennedy is included he attracts 9-10% of the electorate. This means 12-14 million votes, more than twice the number who voted for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein together in 2016. However, there is an interesting pattern in the polls: his absence or presence does not seem to materially affect Trump, and the impact on Biden is only marginally negative. This suggests that Kennedy voters do not affiliate with either of the Big Two: when asked to choose only between Biden and Trump, Kennedy supporters are counted under the ‘Other/Undecided’ category.

The uncontroversial conclusion from this is that if Kennedy would drop out—and nothing says he will—neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could expect to automatically absorb his voters. Democrats in general do not seem to understand this: they treat Kennedy as if his 12-14 million potential voters really belong to them.

Put differently, they believe that they have reasons to worry about Kennedy costing Biden the election. The reason for this belief is elusive, but it could be as simple as the family name. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cannot escape the fact that he is from the famous Kennedy family, but while he appears to see this mostly as a talking point, many Democrats appear to believe that his name recognition attracts massive amounts of voters.

They are wrong. Few of today’s voters in America have any living memory of either President Kennedy or his brother Robert F. Kennedy Sr. While many remember their Senator Ted Kennedy, most of his political achievements—predominantly radically leftist in nature—date back to the 1970s through the 1990s.

A quarter of a century later, the Kennedy name in itself has lost its magic. That is not to say Robert Kennedy Jr. is not a respectable politician, but to the extent he influences the 2024 election, he does so based on his own merits. His voters like him because of what he represents, a point that Democrats cannot seem to understand. Therefore, so long as they continue to convince themselves that Kennedy is arrogating Democratic votes, they are going to put pressure on him and his campaign to bow out of the race.

They have already made a big mistake on that front. For reasons (mostly nefarious) that we shall not delve into here, the Democrat leadership has decided that Joe Biden is their guy. To common-sense-minded voters, Biden comes across as a man in bad need of health care around the clock; the last thing he should do is be president for another day. Instead of this geriatric tragedy, the Democrats could have gotten behind Robert Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, but they decided to chase him out of the party.

Apparently, they thought that cleaving Kennedy from the herd would make him go away, but the exact opposite has happened. Therefore, so long as Biden is trailing Trump in the polls, Democrat operatives will do everything in their power to end Kennedy’s campaign.

Their anti-Kennedy campaign is having some effect: recently, a growing share of voters have expressed an unfavorable opinion about Kennedy. He does not seem to have lost favorability ratings, though; the net effect is that more voters have an opinion on him.

This is important. It confirms that Kennedy has a loyal voter base like few other third-party candidates do. But what is it that makes him such a compelling candidate?

Although Kennedy has a long history as an environmental lawyer, the one issue that has elevated him to public recognition is his vaccine skepticism. He has done what no other notable person in the public discourse has done: he has made it legitimate to talk about issues that neither establishment candidate wants to touch.

Robert Kennedy became famous during the COVID pandemic when he spoke out against mandatory vaccinations, but his quest against unsafe vaccines goes back further than that. In 2018, prepareforchange.net reported:

Del Bigtree, founder of Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to take on the U.S. government by filing suit against the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for vaccine safety violations—and they won. … It turns out the federal agency has been neglecting their vaccine safety obligations for over 30 years.

In 2021, NBC Boston had a not-very impartial report on Kennedy’s opposition to the COVID vaccines. During a visit to a church in Southern California that year, they explain, Kennedy

launched into an anti-vaccine rant. Democrats “drank the Kool-Aid,” he told people assembled for a far right conference, branded as standing for “health and freedom.” “It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines,” Kennedy contended, according to a video of the event, one of his many assertions that ignored or went against legal, scientific and public health consensus.

The fact that the NBC report branded the meeting “far right” is enough of a journalistic bias to reveal the threat that Kennedy represents to the Democrat mainstream (to which NBC certainly can be counted). Already then, three years ago, Kennedy was perceived as a potential threat to the cohesion of the Democratic party.

Two factors have been on Kennedy’s side here. The first is the general sentiment among Americans that government really should not tell them what to do. Although there are large swaths of primarily young, left-leaning voters who will do anything to show their loyalty to government, the thick of the American electorate still abides by the overall sentiment that they are masters of their own universe. Government cannot simply come in and force a vaccination upon them, especially not under the circumstances that were present during the 2020 pandemic.

The second factor attracting voters to Robert Kennedy is time. Since 2021, it has been revealed that Pfizer—to name one vaccine producer—was aware of more than 1,200 side effects that were not released to the public before their COVID vaccine was distributed. Regardless of whether these side effects have been widespread or not—an issue that will be debated for years to come—these revelations have reinforced the belief that millions of Americans have: it was right of them to be skeptical of the rush to have everyone take the COVID vaccine.

So far, nobody has conducted any opinion polls to identify how many of Kennedy’s supporters come from a vaccine-skeptic background. However, it is fair to assume that a large majority of them do. Kennedy also seems to be gaining support from black vaccine-skeptic voters, a constituency that Democrat focus-group-driven campaign strategists have completely lost touch with.

Although we are already in April, there is still a long way to go to the November election. For all we know, Joe Biden may not even be the Democratic nominee—he may ‘step down’ at the party convention in August and hand his primary election delegates over to someone else. However, if it comes down to a rematch between Biden and Trump, there will be ample room for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to make a decisive difference.

By: Sven R. Larson

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