Why the Biden-Trump Debate May Boost RFK Jr.

4 minute read

On Thursday night, independent presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. stood alone on a stage in a small studio in Los Angeles answering the questions posed to his rivals at the first presidential debate 2,000 miles away in Atlanta.

A livestream behind the scenes showed dozens of people hooting, clapping, and chanting "Bobby!" from plastic chairs in a dark studio as Kennedy stood behind a lit-up blue podium with a screen behind him reading "The Real Debate." He faced Jon Stossel, a libertarian media personality, who served as a moderator of sorts as he frequently cut Kennedy off to return to CNN. The livestream on X—which presented a split-screen of Kennedy, President Joe Biden, and former President Donald Trump —initially hovered around 70,000 viewers, despite being promoted by Elon Musk, who tweeted a link telling his 188 million followers to "Watch this."

But about halfway through the debate, as Biden stumbled in a raspy voice and Trump repeated wild and often misleading assertions, the audience for Kennedy's parallel debate at one point spiked to 3.2 million viewers on the X platform. In total, more than nine million viewers tuned in to watch Kennedy, his campaign told TIME.

Biden's uneven campaign performance, which widely alarmed Democrats, will likely increase concerns that Kennedy could draw enough voters to risk becoming a spoiler in November's presidential election. Both campaigns have recently stepped up their attacks on Kennedy, whose famous name and longtime activism in both environmental and anti-vaccine movements could appeal to voters in both parties.

Read More: Inside the Very Online Campaign of RFK Jr.

Kennedy used his shadow debate to offer live commentary on his rivals, saying they represented the "vitriol, the division, the polarization that makes [Americans] disgusted with politics.”

"If you want more of the same, you should vote for President Biden, President Trump—you know what's going to happen, you know that they're going to give you four more years of the same stuff," he said. "If you want things to completely change, then you're going to vote for me, because I'm going to change everything."

But his event mainly served as a platform to repeat many of his usual talking points: lambasting the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, warning about the “corporate capture” of U.S. agencies, and complaining about not receiving Secret Service protection as a presidential candidate. Answering the questions posed to the other candidates, he said that abortion should be “limited” in “late term," and sided with Trump on immigration, saying it is "undisputed [that] we’re seeing a rise in crime that is associated with the immigrants." He also seemed to defend Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, saying the Russian President had "been asking to settle this war from the beginning....The only thing Putin wanted was to keep NATO out of Ukraine."

Read More: RFK Jr.’s Campaign Prepares for a Pivotal Moment

When Trump and Biden —who are 78 and 81 years old, respectively—insulted each other's health and cognitive ability, Kennedy, 70, took the opportunity to boast about his fitness. "All I can say is I hope they let me on the stage for that contest," he responded, to loud cheers from the audience, in response to Biden's invitation to play golf with Trump if the former President could carry his own bag. "I hike every day, I go to the gym every day, I don't eat processed foods, and I do intermittent fasting."

Kennedy, who failed to qualify for the presidential debate hosted by CNN, said his exclusion was due to "collusion between two establishment parties." The network says he didn't meet their criteria to qualify, which required he reach at least 15% in four national polls. “This is something that’s important for our democracy because Americans feel like the system is rigged,” Kennedy said in his opening remarks before the debate. “This is exactly the kind of merger of state and corporate power that I’m running to oppose.”

The Kennedy campaign last month filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing CNN as well as the Biden and Trump campaigns of violating federal election law. "CNN is making prohibited corporate contributions to both campaigns and the Biden committee and the Trump committee have accepted these prohibited corporate contributions," it said.

For now, neither Kennedy nor his running mate, philanthropist Nicole Shanahan, have any formal campaign events on their public schedules. His campaign says they plan to announce a "full schedule" for the coming weeks soon. 

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com