Politics

RFK Jr. fails to gain traction despite Biden's disastrous week


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has failed to gain noticeable traction in the wake of President Biden’s catastrophic debate fallout against former President Trump.

Biden’s widely panned performance in Atlanta gave Kennedy a potential in as he looks to draw support from both top candidates’ voters for his third-party presidential bid.

But as bad as things have been for Biden, Kennedy is also facing challenges. He didn’t get much of a polling bump this week and was the subject of a report in Vanity Fair that outlined allegations of sexual assault, which he did not deny. 

“If RFK Jr. was a truly viable candidate, he’d be making a credible push to supplant Biden as the main alternative to Trump,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst and managing editor at the forecasting outfit Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Clearly that is not happening in the slightest and to the extent he’s making news, it’s bad news.”

Another instance of bad news for Kennedy came Friday, when he posted online that he “won’t take sides” on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Kennedy soon clarified that he was responding to a report on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that raised speculation about possible Saudi involvement in the al Qaeda attacks, but the remarks drew attention over perceived echoes of long-running conspiracy theories about 9/11.

Democrats have long criticized Kennedy over various conspiracy theories, from spreading widely disproven claims about the damaging effects of vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic to wifi’s link to cancer. And members of the party were quick to seize on the candidate’s latest remarks.

Brandon Weathersby, who oversees communications for presidential campaigns at American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, suggested Kennedy was implicating the U.S. government in the 9/11 attacks, adding that there “are few conspiracy theories that RFK Jr. won’t repeat.”

“Whether it’s about Americans dying at the hands of a terrorist attack or a global pandemic, RFK Jr. will parrot any conspiracy theory he thinks will bring him attention and dollars,” Weathersby said. “His rhetoric is as harmful as it is offensive and he cannot lead the country as president.” 

It’s the latest indication that even as Biden’s fate remains in limbo, Kennedy is continuing to struggle in his efforts to become a truly viable candidate.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released in the days after the Atlanta debate showed Kennedy at 8 percent support in the race, which is also where he is in an aggregate of surveys from The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ).

“Think about what a horrible week Biden has had,” Kondik said. “But RFK [Jr.] does not seem to be benefiting at all, and certainly no bona fide Democrat is thinking of backing RFK Jr. as an alternative to the Democratic nominee.”

Democrats are torn over whether they think Biden should continue to seek a second term in the White House; three House lawmakers called for him to step down. Those pleas come as longtime strategists, pollsters and even some of his former opponents from 2020 have also urged the 81-year-old incumbent to resign.

Beyond Biden, Democrats are also skeptical that Vice President Harris can beat Trump in the swing states that will determine the outcome. Despite a recent CNN poll showing Harris running against Trump with a tighter margin that Biden, she is nonetheless also trailing Trump in most battleground polls.

But as Democrats’ disarray plays out publicly, Kennedy also seems to be struggling. The bad press hasn’t helped him create a contrast between Biden’s age problems and Trump’s convicted felony.

Some prominent voices in the party faithful have become particularly fearful that Kennedy — a member of their team as recently as October — could spoil the election, which many fear will result in a second Trump win. But as demonstrated this week, Kennedy has his own potential liabilities.

“I’ve said this from the beginning. I am not a church boy,” Kennedy said in an appearance on the YouTube series “Breaking Points” about the Vanity Fair article, which said that he inappropriately groped a woman who was his babysitter. “I had a very, very rambunctious youth. I said in my announcement speech that I have … so many skeletons in my closet, that if they could all vote, I could run for king of the world.”

Kennedy did not expand on the sexual assault claim, and he called the article “a lot of garbage.”

Responses like that, as well as his failure to make notable gains in polling, have reassured some Democrats.

“What you have seen the last few weeks is exactly what many of us have been saying for a while, the more voters hear about Kennedy the less they are going to like him,” said Doug Gordon, a Democratic strategist. 

“When a graphic and disturbing photo comes out of you eating a dog and it is not even the worst story about you that week, that’s not a good week,” Gordon said, referring to a separate part in the article that showed Kennedy appearing to eat an animal carcass, which Vanity Fair reported was an apparent dog. Kennedy denied the claim, insisting it was a goat and that the photo had been taken while he was in Patagonia.

Kennedy’s standing with the public has not been where it should be for a serious contender about four months from Election Day, experts say. He did not get to 15 percent in the four polls CNN set as a threshold for the debate, meaning he wasn’t able to appear on stage with Biden and Trump. And it’s not clear he will even appear on most ballots in November.

According to his campaign website’s ballot tracker, Kennedy still needs some two dozen states before he reaches his goal of 50 states, and most secretaries of state have yet to certify his submissions. The Hill/DDHQ confirmed he has made the ballot in six states.

“While the presidential race is at [a] critical and fluid moment when it comes to Trump and Biden, one truth remains — Kennedy has no path to winning,” Gordon said. “And as this week has proven, he has plenty from his past that is beyond disqualifying.”


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