April 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 11 minutes

RFK Jr is the chaos factor

An anti-system candidate in an anti-system era, writes Lee Drutman.

A screenshot from one of Kennedy's YouTube ads.
A screenshot from one of Kennedy's YouTube ads.

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Editor’s note: the following essay, sent only to Editorial Board subscribers, first appeared in Undercurrent Events, Lee’s newsletter about political science. Highly recommended. –JS

Robert F. Kennedy Jr will be a factor in the 2024 presidential election. I shiver to have just typed that statement. Can I really think that?

His support has been hovering around 10 percent for months now. At this point, he is poised for the best third-party performance since Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992.

I wrote about Kennedy’s surprising staying power for CNN last week (“RFK Jr. is poised to be a chaos factor in November”). I also discussed Kennedy on CNN (“RFK Jr., Third-Party Candidates, and the Two-Party System”) But here I’ll go into wonkier detail, because that’s what I do here at Undercurrent Events.

Kennedy’s rise is a direct consequence of the two-party doom loop and the collateral damage it is doing on our political system. The threat is not going away, even if Biden somehow wins a second term. 

So … what the Kennedy is going on here?

The simplest explanation is that RFK Jr’s campaign is channeling an anti-system, anti-two party, anti-elite, smash-the-system energy that has grown considerably over the last decade to the point that it can now support a third-party candidate. But as I’ll explain, there’s a little more nuance below the surface.

Let’s start by grounding ourselves in what we know, based on polling. 

What can we learn from polling so far?
Kennedy’s polling support has consistently averaged around 10 percent support for a few months now. 

But that average hides a fair amount of variability. Across polls, his support has bounced around quite a bit. In a three-way, it goes from as low as 6 percent to as high as 22 percent. In a five-way (with Jill Stein and Cornel West), it bounces around from as low as 2 percent to as high as 18 percent

Many of Kennedy’s supporters are disaffected, “low-propensity” voters — that is, citizens who are not super-engaged in politics and typically don’t vote (though may have voted last year in an unusually high-turnout presidential election). They are probably the least likely citizens to respond to pollsters, and thus hard to capture properly. This is the most likely reason why Kennedy’s support changes so much from poll to poll.

This variability makes it hard to predict Kennedy’s likely impact, particularly the burning question: will he take more votes away from Biden or Trump? 

Nonetheless, I’ll offer one rough way to gesture at where he’s drawing support. Real Clear Polling lists 52 general election polls since November with Kennedy. Below I’ve plotted Kennedy’s support on the x-axis, and Trump’s margin of victory on the Y-axis. Each dot represents a single poll. In general, where Kennedy does better, Trump’s margin is greater.

What’s going on here? One possibility is that Kennedy is drawing more from Biden than Trump, which would explain why Trump’s margin of victory is higher when Kennedy’s support is higher.  

Another possibility is that the polls that weight Kennedy supporters more heavily also weight Trump supporters more heavily, so maybe the correlation reflects poll weighting.

A third possibility is that there is simply too much statistical noise here, and we should refrain from making any conclusions for now. 

At this point, I can see a case for all three possibilities, which means I lean towards the third explanation. We need more data. 

Things may also change as the contrast between Biden and Trump sharpens again. Support for third parties always declines as it becomes clear a third-party candidate is unlikely to win. If past elections are an indication, Kennedy’s support will fade as November approaches.

Still, because the November election is almost certain to come down to very small margins in a handful of swing states, even a small third-party vote could exceed the margin of victory. There are also reasons why Kennedy’s campaign may have more staying power. 

All this makes Kennedy a significant chaos factor. 

Why Kennedy? Why now?
As I’ve tried to understand Kennedy’s appeal, I’ve watched and listened to a bit of his programming. He manages to come across as an earnest, even humble, public servant, who is doing all this reluctantly, out of some sense of duty and responsibility. His message is a kind of heterodox anti-system populism. But amid the incoherence, I see one coherent thread: The system is rotten. Our institutions are failing us. We need to smash them. Then we will rebuild. 

“If enough people want to reclaim our country,” Kennedy says, “I can be your instrument. I’ll be the sledgehammer that the American people will wield to smash apart the corrupt merger of the state and corporate power.” Then… “We, the people, can take back our power.”

This message resonates. Many Americans have lost faith in American institutions, including the two major parties.

For example: Gallup’s Average Confidence in Major US Institutions tracking hit a record low in 2023 — just 26 percent.

That’s a lot of distrust. 

We all know that when it comes to this election, Americans are deeply dissatisfied with their choices. Both Biden and Trump have had extremely low favorability ratings since their respective inaugurations. 

But their parties are also very unpopular. Consider these graphs, from a 2022 Pew Research Center Report. Both parties are viewed quite unfavorably.

But what’s really significant is that more than a quarter of Americans now view both parties unfavorably.   Compare that to just six percent in 1994.

And note: that 27 percent (above) is about the same as the 26 percent who view both Biden and Trump unfavorably.

RFK Jr still appears to have a positive approval rating. That makes him unique. No other active US national political figure has a positive approval rating.

The breakdown of trust and the two-party doom loop 
Kennedy’s staying power seems directly related to the decline in institutional trust.

There are many reasons why distrust is widespread right now. Some are specific to the US. Some are not.

I hope to come back to this topic of political trust in a future piece. But for now, I’ll just note that hyper-partisan polarization has extreme consequences for political trust. 

When Democrats are in control of an institution, Republicans question and undermine that institution’s legitimacy. When Republicans are in control of an institution, Democrats question that institution’s legitimacy. Sometimes these institutions switch partisan control. Trust improves a little, but never quite to where it was. Over time, these declines add up. In our current era of binary hyper-partisanship, no institution is outside of partisanship. This is a direct consequence of the Two-Party Doom Loop. 

Democrats and Republicans have always attacked each other. But the attacks in the last two decades have changed in character. This is reflected in the growing share of Americans who consider their political opponents as something more than mere political opponents, but rather as people who are inferior and dangerous — not merely misguided, but actively evil. 

The escalating negativity is undermining the legitimacy of both major parties, whose favorability ratings have clearly withered under nonstop attack. But with no alternative third party, the governing “lesser-of-two-evils” logic was neatly encapsulated in Biden’s oft-repeated advice to compare him only to the alternative (not the Almighty).

Here is the line in some context, from a recent Biden campaign reception (my italics):

We have to make — we have to make constant and crystal clear the choice here. I am often quoted as saying what my dad would say: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.”  Well — (the President makes the sign of the cross.) (Laughter.)

But, look, time and again, Republicans show they’re part of a — part of a party of chaos and division.  Think about this. The Republican Party this year has no platform. No, I’m not — I’m not jok- — I’m not joking. There is no place you can go and get the Republican platform.

Yes, Trump is worse. But when there are only two alternatives, you can get away with lowering your opponent and coming out on top. But this has cumulative consequences. Two decades of increasing partisan rhetorical warfare has clearly dented the reputation of both parties and their leaders. And in this wreckage, a grizzled Kennedy emerges. 

What can previous third-party candidacies teach us?
Below I’ve listed the most significant third-party presidential candidacies over the last 150 years. My (arbitrary) cut-off point was either the candidate won a state, 10 percent of the national vote or, in some cases, both. 

All impactful third-party presidential candidacies have had two important things in common. 

First, impactful third-party candidates have captured an issue that both of the major parties were ignoring, either because the issue split both parties, or because neither party thought the issue was important.

Second, impactful third-party candidates have found a slice of the electorate that doesn’t care which of the two parties wins the presidency, and cares more about making a statement on that issue than cares about which party is in the White House. 

Kennedy largely fits this profile, though his issue is more of a diffuse anti-system distrust than a specific policy demand. As a recent Ipsos analysis concluded about Kennedy’s supporters: “More than anything, these are a set of Americans who are dissatisfied with a political system that has fielded the same two candidates for the second straight election.” A sizable chunk of the electorate appears to see Democrats and Republicans equally.

Why RFK Jr is succeeding where No Labels failed
The big third-party challenge this election was supposed to come from No Labels. But No Labels is looking more and more like No Impact these days. Despite raising tens of millions of dollars to support a third option on the ballot, none of the serious establishment candidates No Labels was courting actually wants to run. And for good reason. A No Labels candidacy would have No Meaningful Shot at winning. 

The No Labels strategy made one correct assumption — that a significant portion of the electorate might consider a third party candidate in a Biden-Trump rematch. But the donor consortium made three mistaken assumptions.

The first assumption was that potential third-party supporters would want a more established, experienced political figure, like a Joe Manchin or a Mitt Romney.

However, the grassroots energy these days is almost entirely for political amateurs. For example, as a new academic article by Rachel Porter and Sarah A. Treul documents, only half of the freshmen elected to the US House of Representatives had previous elected experience. Compare that to 75 percent from the 1980s through the mid-2010s. Something significant has changed. 

Though Kennedy is a known figure, and from a political family, he has never held elected office. He does, however, have more than a million followers on TikTok — a rarity among political figures.  

The Kennedy coalition may be an odd, incoherent coalition of outsiders, including a weird mix of “warrior moms” and “manosphere” dudes. But they all have deep distrust of established institutions of government, business and science. They don’t want an insider to save the system; they want an outsider to smash the system. 

The second No Labels assumption was that potential third-party supporters were moderates, who would want somebody with both a moderate temperament and middle-of-the-road policies. Yet what really distinguishes these voters is their disaffection.

In 2022, my New America colleague Oscar Pocasangre and I examined the “undecided voters” who might swing the election. We concluded that they were all over the place, ideologically. If anything unified them, it was disengagement with the existing system — just the kind of voter who would gravitate towards an anti-system outsider. They were not really moderates.

The third No Labels assumption was that there was latent voter demand for a libertarian-ish socially tolerant, fiscally responsible candidate that matched the No Labels donor profile. There is not such demand. That quadrant of the electorate is sparsely populated. By contrast, Kennedy is much more oriented toward the “populist” quadrant of the electorate, where his economic populism and his “stop the border crisis” posture has many more potential supporters. 

Here’s that key scatterplot from my 2017 Voter Study Group report that shows how little support there is in the electorate for a fiscally-responsible, socially-tolerant Acela candidate. I’ve annotated with my rough placement of RFK Jr and what I’d expect from a No Labels candidate

Kennedy won’t win could presage major political changes ahead
I can safely predict that Kennedy will not be the next president. But his staying power thus far suggests he will be a chaos factor in the election. His support is high enough that his votes could exceed the winning margin in key swing states. It isn’t yet clear which candidate he will hurt more. Perhaps like Perot in 1992, he’ll take equally from both major parties.

But I’m honestly more interested in what happens after 2024. Strong third-party showings sometimes presage larger political changes, and lead major parties to pick up their issues. The successful populist candidacy of James B. Weaver in 1892, for example, anticipated the Democratic-Populist fusion of 1896. The successful third-party candidacy of George Wallace in 1968 presaged the Republicans’ “southern strategy.”

The most recent significant candidacy was Perot’s 1992 campaign, which elevated the issue of the national debt, which both parties then took more seriously. Perot also presaged an era of political distrust. For example, Perot suggested bypassing Congress, and instead solving problems directly with the people, through electronic town halls. Perot was the first “successful” third-party challenger to not have ever held elected office.

Kennedy’s 2024 efforts are even more aggressively populist and anti-system, and thus even harder for a major party to incorporate fully. The Kennedy 2024 campaign is an attack on the legitimacy of the entire mode of governing. This is extremely dangerous, for obvious reasons. The existing system is already quite brittle.

What’s next?
In the broader scope of American history, big threats to the legitimacy of the political system have led to eras of political reform. (For more on this subject, I direct you to my essay, “How Democracies Revive.”)

These eras of political reform occur in roughly 60-year cycles. The Jacksonian populism of the 1830s; the expansive Progressive Era reforms of the 1900s (the direct primary, the direct election of senators, the initiative and referendum processes, among others); the Voting Rights and Good Government Reforms of the 1960s and early 1970s. The cycle arguably goes back to the American Revolution itself. 

So here we are, in the 2020s, six decades since the last era of major political reform. Structural democracy reform is once again an increasingly important topic of debate. 

Americans are deeply frustrated with the two-party system. They want more parties, more opportunities to participate, more options for representation. Support for a third party is at an all-time high. Citizens are frustrated with the same old, same old. And they are tired of being whipped into a frenzy for every election as the most important election ever. I know I am. It has to be taking a toll on our collective mental health. 

Kennedy’s rise is a direct consequence of the two-party doom loop and the collateral damage it is doing on our political system. The threat is not going away, even if Biden somehow wins a second term. 

So, once again, my conclusion is simple.

If we’re going to get out of this doom loop, we need electoral system reform. More parties, better parties. Fusion voting. Proportional representation. You know my call to action by now, probably.

Of course, electoral-system reform is not the only thing we need. But it’s the core part of a balanced political re-imagining, and it’s the change that makes a lot of other changes possible. 

My bottom line on Kennedy’s 2024 run is simple: I do think there’s a there there. He won’t be our next president. But he — and his heterodox anti-system support coalition — demand attention. 

My fear is that this coalition will continue to undermine the legitimacy of our political system, which will continue to suffer under deep distrust. 

My hope is that this threat will be a shot of energy into the growing movement for structural democracy renovation. I am still optimistic this will happen. I hope I’m right. 

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and the publisher Undercurrent Events, a newsletter about political science.

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