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Monday, June 10, 2024

Kennedy strikes again

Will RFK Jr. spoil the 2024 presidential election?


By MOLLY THOMPSON — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu 


The Kennedys — a family so quintessentially American that Olivia Rodrigo sang praises of their “class and integrity.” But the proverbial black sheep of the group, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is set to be on the presidential ticket this fall without the support of the rest of his famously heralded kin. In fact, the rest of the Kennedys have come out in public endorsement of President Joe Biden.​​​​ 

This wasn’t a surprising move, given that RFK’s political stance is quite misaligned from the rest of his family. He’s running as an independent  — though he initially entered the race as a democrat — and has been vocal about how he views the American two-party system as “rigged.” He’s focused his platform on environmental action, “transforming” the police, ending U.S. involvement in proxy wars, border control and immigration restriction. He’s also loudly anti-vaccine and even started a non-profit organization that spreads anti-vaccine messaging: the Children’s Health Defense. In the past, he’s spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation as well. He’s also very focused on taking down large corporations. He blames “the corrupt merger of state and corporate power” for… a lot of the issues he identifies as central in the US today such as unhealthy food, immigration, chronic disease and more. 

The big question now is whether or not RFK’s involvement in the general election will affect the outcome; is he going to throw a wrench in the race? Historically, third parties aren’t often successful. But that’s not to say they don’t make a difference — third-party candidates often act as election spoilers, which happens when they draw enough votes away from major party candidates to affect the outcome of the election. 

One of the most notable election spoilers in recent U.S. history is Ross Perot, who won nineteen percent of the popular vote in 1992. His participation has been cited as a defining reason for Bill Clinton’s win, as experts suspected that his votes might have gone to incumbent President George H. W. Bush if Perot hadn’t been on the ticket. 

Projected votes for this year’s general election didn’t initially paint RFK as a spoiler. But as we approach November and campaigns begin in earnest, there seems to be a possibility that he could actually affect the outcome. 

The Washington Post polled four states that flipped in the 2020 election (Trump won them in 2016, Biden won them in 2020) — Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — to gauge the likelihood that RFK sways their outcome this year. It’s important to note that Kennedy is not currently on the ballot in all states, but he is working fervently to get his name on the ballot across the country. He recently announced his running mate to be Nicole Shanahan, which is expected to accelerate the petition process. What the Washington Post’s study found was that in two of the four states (Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), adding RFK to the mix changed the winner. In both states, polls that excluded Kennedy were evenly split between Biden and Trump, but once Kennedy was included Biden pulled ahead in Wisconsin and Trump pulled ahead in Pennsylvania. In Georgia and Michigan, Trump won in both polls but by slightly different margins. 

Disclaimer: Because we are currently still quite far away from election day, these polls are going to change dramatically. As we get closer to November, predictions will get more accurate, but they will always still be only guesses. This is especially true in today’s political climate, where the contest is so close that the outcome is incredibly difficult to predict. In fact, it’s the very reason that the race is so neck-and-neck that RFK even stands to be a spoiler. When we’re talking about just a couple of percentage points being the deciding factor, any votes cast for Kennedy that take away from one of the other candidates can make a real dent in the outcome. 

This is also only true because of our plurality winner-takes-all electoral system — we can only have one winner, so it doesn’t matter how large of a percentage the winning candidate gets as long as they get more than the other candidates. In a system of proportional representation, a minor party wouldn’t be able to sway the race one way or another because parties would win legislative seats proportional to the number of votes they received. It wouldn’t matter if a minor party took a few of the votes; the majority of the population would still be represented by the top-winning candidates. 

But in our system, the “first past the post” of 270 electoral votes wins the whole race. In an atmosphere where, for example, Biden won states like Arizona and Georgia by 0.3% of the vote in 2020, any candidate taking any small percentage of the vote can sway the race. 

RFK hasn’t been taking votes away from one candidate in particular (though some sources have cited him to be impacting one party or another more at certain points in time), and it remains unknown whether or not he’ll dig more from the voters that would have otherwise supported Biden or Trump. His following is relatively small as of today, but as we know, that’s all it takes to affect an election in our current political climate. 

So will Kennedy be a spoiler in the 2024 presidential election? We don’t know. But there’s a very real possibility that he could, a much more likely possibility than was initially posed. As frustrating as it is, the consensus is maybe. But maybe is significant — maybe is all it could take. 


Written by: Molly Thompson — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu   


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