How RFK Jr. Could Lose Badly But Still Throw Biden Off His Game

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President Joe Biden closed out his first week as an official 2024 candidate with plenty of reasons to feel good about the launch. On the eve of his declaration, he met with the so-called Tennessee Three for a photo-op that reminded Black voters of the White House’s efforts to protect democracy and encourage younger voters. He promoted his massive infrastructure and climate laws that boosted the struggling ranks of union members and tradesmen. A state visit from the South Koreans yielded new assurances meant to calm fears about a nuclear North. Biden’s turn before the White House Correspondents Association also went well enough with plenty of chuckles as Biden roasted himself from the dais.

Biden World may be riding high, but there is one nagging nuisance that has the potential to do more damage than they may appreciate. Two weeks ago, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the 1968 presidential hopeful and nephew of the 35th President announced his own plans to win the White House. Most serious Democrats have dismissed Kennedy as an inconvenience whose past flirtation with vaccine misinformation would eventually prove disqualifying. Those sage insiders are probably correct in their diagnosis. Only one incumbent elected President has ever lost re-nomination, and that was Franklin Pierce in 1852. Four other Vice Presidents who rose to President had been denied the nomination in their own right, and the last time that happened was 1884. (President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1968 bid—and his presidency, really—effectively ended after he had a shaky showing in New Hampshire’s primary.)

But past serious primary challengers have proven popular enough to throw incumbent Presidents off their game. Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976 primaried incumbent President Gerald Ford, who got the job only when Richard Nixon resigned. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy—RFK Jr.’s uncle—primaried Jimmy Carter four years later. And in 1992, activist Pat Buchanan tried to take out President George H.W. Bush. All of those challengers failed, but exposed intra-party divisions that helped to make each incumbent a one-term President.

Now, at least at this point, RFK Jr. is no Reagan, who won 24 primaries against Ford and amassed about 46% of the primary vote. But amid Biden’s listless support within his own party, polling shows Kennedy hitting double-digits. In fact, polls consistently show Democrats don’t want Biden, the oldest person ever to do the job, to seek a second term; if re-elected, Biden would leave office at age 86. A stunning 52% of Democrats told AP-NORC pollsters Biden shouldn’t run again, and among all voters that sentiment reaches 73%. The findings are in line with other surveys. Add in there this inconvenient fact: Biden himself is effectively barred from competing in Iowa or New Hampshire, historically lead-off contests but this time falling afoul of Democratic Party rules and thus turning into media-based events. Biden pushed the Democratic National Committee to start the clock running in South Carolina, meaning he could be arriving in the Palmetto State with his face stained by scrambled eggs made in Des Moines or Manchester diners.

Biden, nonetheless, on Tuesday made his plans official. The slick online video and subsequent comments didn’t change voters’ mind, at least not yet in public surveys or private chats in Washington. RFK Jr.’s standing in the Fox News poll showed him on the eve of Biden’s entrance at a staggering 19%—hardly enough at this point to do any real damage to Biden, but sufficient to be a piece of gravel in Biden’s loafers. (Author Marianne Williamson is polling at 9%.)

Now, the fact that roughly 1-in-4 Democrats are pulling for someone other than Biden doesn’t matter all that much on its own. But it may be an early sign of troubles to come, even if RFK Jr. never poses a serious threat to Biden securing the party’s nomination. Kennedy does his best among women—white women, specifically—and a nagging 15% of people who voted for Biden in 2020 are now backing his upstart challenger.

Protest votes don’t really matter in politics—until they do. Even after Hillary Clinton earned enough delegates to become the nominee in 2016, Bernie Sanders’ supporters continued to cast ballots for him—and won caucuses in Montana and North Dakota, and still racked up between 21% and 49% of the votes in five other contests even after it was obvious the nomination was not his. Clinton to this day believes that how Sanders chose to wind down his own campaign and back hers ultimately cost her votes in the general.

Eight years before she lost to Trump, Clinton’s earlier White House bid continued to pick up support—42% in Montana, 55% in South Dakota, 68% in Puerto Rico—even after it was clear she couldn’t earn the majority of pledged delegates. But her convincing endorsement of Barack Obama took the sour grapes out of enough of her loyalists’ pusses to help Obama win—and her to become his top diplomat.

There are plenty of other examples of protest votes amounting to early warning signs, though. In 2004, John Kerry effectively captured the nomination on March 11, before 21 contests had even been held. Kerry continued with the pro forma march, picking up between 27% in rival John Edwards’ home turf of North Carolina and, even on the final day of balloting, only 92% in New Jersey, where Dennis Kucinich had an oddball base. Four years before that, Al Gore effectively captured the nomination on March 14, yet still was losing between 5% and 27% of the delegates after that. Both Kerry and Gore lost their bids as Democrats just never really got jazzed about either.

All of which is to say that while Biden is on safe turf for re-nomination, that alone may not be the bar he needs to clear. The National Review rightly notes that no incumbent has ceded so much polling ground to a challenger and survived. A YouGov poll found RFK Jr. enjoying a 48% favorability rating overall and 49% among Republicans; it doesn’t stretch the imagination to assume the Kennedy brand and nostalgia are doing a lot of the work there. (Biden stands at 47% in that poll overall, but lagging with anemic 16% favorability among Republicans.)

And then there is the Republican hype behind Kennedy, whom many right-wing media forces have identified as a potential frenemy in their shared interest in dinging Biden before he even has a Republican nominee. Kennedy may end up a useful foil and proxy for conservative trolling of Biden. And the sitting President may end up unable to control his own frustrations that any fellow Democrat would dare challenge his commitment to the job, let alone someone whose uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, was a man Biden called a “big brother” and eulogized.

So it’s unlikely we’re going to see a Biden-Kennedy debate any time soon. If ever they spar, it will be clear among Democratic voters that Biden has the obvious advantage. After all, Kennedy’s views on the jabs inside a party that vaunts vaccines is far from helpful. Kennedy’s own kin have for years called out his views as dangerous and fact-challenged. And as much as Kennedy’s work on the environment may be alluring, he is frankly untested in direct politics, and the prospect of nominating a neophyte to face either Trump or another nominee is reason enough to get sober. The risk of sending Howard Dean to debate George W. Bush in 2004 forced a lot of frank conversations about electability… ending, of course, with milquetoast Kerry. That didn’t work out for Democrats, but it at least gave them a candidate who was flawed but not a flameout.

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