A Year Out, RFK Jr.’s Candidacy Hurts Biden and Trump Equally in Swing States
Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden in six of the seven swing states we surveyed this month, and adding third-party candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West to the ballot does not change that. In a multi-candidate ballot test, support for the Democratic and Republican parties’ front-runners dropped by similar levels across the swing-state map, with Kennedy pulling 10% support and West receiving 1% in an aggregate of the surveys, with little variation across the battlegrounds.
In combined data from all the swing states, 8% of voters who backed Biden in a two-way contest against Trump said they would support Kennedy in a multi-candidate ballot. This is similar to the 7% of Trump’s head-to-head supporters who would also back the anti-vaccine activist if given the option.
While Trump’s campaign has already sought to undercut Kennedy’s independent bid, he is still more liked among Republicans than Democrats. This gives Biden’s campaign a potential opportunity to turn Kennedy’s candidacy against Trump by playing up his fringe views that are popular in some right-wing quarters.
Ever since Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped his bid for the Democratic Party’s 2024 presidential nomination to pursue the White House as an independent, there has been talk of him being a spoiler — someone who could siphon off support from one major party contender to throw the election in a given state for the other.
But as things stand today, it isn’t evident that Kennedy’s candidacy — coupled with another independent bid by progressive activist Cornel West — is changing the overall dynamics of the expected contest between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the respective Democratic and Republican front-runners.
How third party candidates affect Trump and Biden
According to the November edition of our swing-state surveys conducted on behalf of Bloomberg News, Biden trails Trump in two-way hypothetical matchups in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while they are tied in Michigan. The figures tell a similar story to what we found in October.
Biden’s Margins Against Trump in Swing States Remain Similar in a Multi-Candidate Ballot Test
When Kennedy and West’s names are thrown into the mix, almost nothing about Biden and Trump’s standing against each other changes. Their support drops by similar levels, with Kennedy pulling 10% support and West receiving 1% in an average across the seven states, with little variation between them.
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To put it more pointedly, our swing-state data reveals that Kennedy — an heir to a storied name in the Democratic Party who, despite many liberal policy positions, has aligned himself with anti-vaccine and populist movements that have been embraced by the right — is pulling near-equal support away from both Biden and Trump at this early stage in the contest.
Kennedy Pulls Similar Levels of Support from Biden and Trump in Key 2024 Battlegrounds
In an aggregate of the swing-state surveys, 8% of voters who backed Biden in a two-way contest said they would support Kennedy in the wider ballot with third-party candidates, similar to the 7% of Trump’s head-to-head supporters who said they would back the anti-vaccine activist. In the multi-candidate ballot test, Trump maintains only slightly more of his support from the two-way contest than Biden does (86% to 83%), due in part to a sliver of the incumbent’s head-to-head backers defecting to West.
Kennedy’s initial strength appears to be driven by relatively high awareness across the swing-state map, with just 5% of voters saying they have never heard of him.
How Swing-State Voters View Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Some of Kennedy’s name recognition may come from his famous family name, but those who have heard of him across the swing states we surveyed are more likely to view him favorably than unfavorably (40% to 32%). Swing-state Democrats and independents are generally split on their views of him, while swing-state Republicans are more likely to view him positively than negatively (47% to 27%), reflecting what we have noted at the national level.
The bottom line
For now, the discussion about contenders with no party label is a hypothetical one. Since both Kennedy and West shirked party apparatuses to run as independents (West dropped his bid for the Green Party’s nod in October), they’ll have to fight for ballot access in all 50 states — no easy task.
But Kennedy, armed with millions in fundraising cash and higher voter awareness, may have a fighting chance of getting on the ballot in at least some states, and the swing states are a prime target for making a mark. Should Kennedy make it to the ballot, both Biden and Trump’s campaigns would benefit from going on the attack against the leading independent candidate to keep their respective coalitions intact, an issue of particular concern for Biden who, at this moment, is facing more attrition from 2020 voters than Trump.
This task appears easier for Biden given the GOP’s swing-state electorate views Kennedy more favorably than the Democratic electorate does, something the Trump campaign tacitly acknowledged when it issued a screed attacking the anti-vaccine activist after he announced his independent bid. There is good news for both sides: More than a quarter of voters in the swing states we surveyed on both sides of the aisle have yet to form an opinion about Kennedy, suggesting their minds could be moved against him.
But regardless of potential third-party challenges, our swing-state data and national surveys continue to show that Biden has tremendous work to do over the next year to shore up his own base and regain competitiveness with independent voters who helped him defeat Trump three years ago.
Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].