There has been a lot of chatter on the political right and left in this country on how exactly Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would hurt Trump’s chances as an independent presidential candidate.
Since giving up his primary challenge and declaring an independent candidacy, the internet consensus increasingly seems to be that RFK Jr. would play a spoiler to a return to the White House for former President Donald Trump. While early polling on this question is not very numerous, there is little evidence for their argument and much evidence that an RFK Jr. independent run will hurt his party’s incumbent president.
President Joe Biden is in a historically weak position. Arguably the weakest incumbent since President Carter or even before.
Historically, viable third-party or independent candidates that achieve a threshold of 5% hurt the incumbent party in the White House, not the challenger. Their function is similar to the viable primary challenge within the president’s party.
It weakens the president’s political standing. Arguments against this idea will cite the ideological orientation and similarities to anti-establishment populist candidates. The problem with this analysis is that independent voters are not nearly as ideological as the politicos and partisans who endlessly obsess over these details.
Independent and unaligned voters are all over the map ideologically. If they had a broad agreement, you would have an easier time building an actual third-party option around that, yet none has emerged despite attempt after attempt to do so.
At a time when the American people report record dissatisfaction with institutions, political parties and the direction of the country, all of these factors play against the incumbent party. While Kennedy Jr. and Trump may agree on some of the most significant issues of our time, the reality is Kennedy Jr. is a pretty solid old-school liberal who today comes off as heterodox because the Democrat Party has moved on from liberalism across most dimensions.
A quick stroll through the presidential election lane shows third-party spoilers for incumbent presidents that span the spectrum. In 1912, incumbent President William Howard Taft was done in by the Republican establishment Bull Moose split over Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to rectify his mistake of retiring too early.
Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond were no help to incumbent Harry Truman in 1948, and a Democratic vote split similar to the Republican one of 1912 in the incumbent party as the solid south left the New Deal coalition, an event the coalition has never recovered from.
Even though he was a Republican in Congress, John Anderson proved to be no help for President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, vs. a challenging Republican in Ronald Reagan. In 1992, it’s been widely remarked that Ross Perot’s candidacy hurt incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush.
And in 2016, even though Gary Johnson served as a Republican governor prior, he and Jill Stein’s votes broke decisively for Biden in 2020, which means they could have just as well been decisive in 2016. The third-party votes of Johnson and Stein exceeded the margins in the decisive states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and those same voters voted for challenger Biden against incumbent Trump in margins beyond the thin margins in the decisive states of Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
Every vote an incumbent president doesn’t get hurts them in what is most often — a referendum rather than a choice. If President Trump were still the citizen Trump of 2016, it may still be a choice. Still, voters will be comparing two sets of records against one another that happened across eight years in a way that has not been done in our lifetimes.
More and more, it’s looking like it will be a referendum election on President Biden’s performance in office and his failure to return the country to any sense of normalcy or produce preferable policy outcomes.
Rather than opine how Kennedy Jr., who will exhaust considerable resources to get on the ballot, will hurt or spoil the chances of reelection through a final round of misplaced Camelot nostalgia, the more interesting analysis will be where elections are decided — in the electoral college.
And if Kennedy Jr. has no path to victory through the electoral college, much of his vote will likely come home to Trump and Biden near the end anyway.