Could RFK swing enough votes from Trump and Biden to decide the election? | Robert F Kennedy Jr

Democrats and Republicans fear Kennedy, who is polling at about 10% nationally, could pull votes away from their candidates. Illustration: Samuel Kerr/The Guardian

The Kennedy name looms large over American politics. John F Kennedy, despite serving only twoand a half years as president before his assassination, is frequently ranked among the top 10 US leaders; his brother, Robert F Kennedy, seemed set for his own spell in the White House until he too was killed in 1968.

Enter: Robert F Kennedy Jr, nephew of the former, son of the latter and increasingly, persona non grata of the surviving Kennedy clan.

Part-time environmental lawyer, full-time conspiracy theorist, an animal enthusiast who owned a pet lion at his elite boarding school and who, in his telling, had part of his brain eaten by a worm, Kennedy entered the 2024 presidential race as a Democrat running against Biden, before switching to an independent in October last year. The 70-year-old, who also has a history of associating with white supremacists, is an unknown quantity in the 2024 election race, with both parties worried about the havoc he could wreak.

Five months out from perhaps the most consequential election in recent US history, Biden and Trump continue to be unpopular with the American public. Kennedy’s ability to be neither of those men, and his willingness to lean into his family name, have positioned him as a spanner in the works of American democracy.

Both Democrats and Republicans fear that Kennedy, who is polling at about 10% nationally, could pull votes away from their men. Even a few Biden or Trump voters hopping on to the Kennedy train could be enough to influence what is expected to be a tight race. In an indication of the threat he poses, Trump has gone from praising Kennedy as a “very smart person” a year ago to recently posting a four-minute video attacking him on Truth Social.

Plenty of people try to be president. In 2020 alone, 1,212 people filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission saying they were running for the White House. Yet it is Kennedy who is drawing all the coverage.

Would he be getting as much attention – and pulling in millions of dollars in donations, some of it from former Trump supporters – if he had a different last name? Probably not.

The world was introduced to RFK Jr early. His father, a supporter of Israel, was killed by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian-Jordanian man, as Kennedy Sr campaigned for president in Los Angeles. A 14-year-old Kennedy Jr was a pallbearer at his funeral: black and white photos from the funeral show a shaggy-haired Kennedy at the head of the coffin, looking numb and out of place among a crowd of grown men.

Kennedy was the third of 11 children (the Kennedys were prodigious breeders), born to his father and Ethel Kennedy – a Chicago-born daughter of a coal magnate who remained a public presence way into the 1990s. Ethel made an appearance on the sitcom Cheers and was even named a tough tennis opponent in a Seinfeld episode.

If Kennedy benefited from the family name, he benefited from the family wealth, too. Kennedy was raised in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, at the Kennedy compound – where his mother lives to this day.

He studied at Millbrook school, a private boarding school in New York. At Millbrook, Kennedy was not universally liked, Jerry Oppenheimer wrote in a biography of the future presidential candidate.

“[Kennedy] was viewed by some fellow students as egotistical and irresponsible for strutting around the campus and on the sidelines at home football games with a potentially dangerous young lion on a leash,” Oppenheimer wrote.

Millbrook’s headmaster eventually banished the lion, who was called Toto, from campus, and the then 130lb big cat went to live at a safari park in Florida.

Other interests, Oppenheimer reported, included “getting stoned” and, oddly, falconry. Kennedy was in a gang too: the Hyannis Port Terrors, who apparently “ran around and stole alcohol” during the summer months.

(Kennedy’s parading around with a lion had apparently been forgiven by 1998: that year, he was the commencement speaker at the school.)

His teenage years were difficult. In an interview in 2023, Kennedy said he started taking heroin when he was 15 years old, saying he “had a big empty hole inside”, and in 1983, when he was 29, Kennedy was charged with heroin possession after he “became ill”, the New York Times reported, “in the washroom of an airliner” which stopped in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“All of a sudden everybody knew I was a drug addict and it gave me the freedom to get help,” Kennedy told an interviewer. “I could just be who I was and be honest.”

Kennedy had hidden his addiction while graduating from Harvard University and earning a law degree from Pace University in New York, and after he had completed two years’ probation as a result of the heroin charge, he embarked on a career in environmental law.

He worked for Riverkeeper, an organization which protects New York’s Hudson River, and sued polluters in an effort to protect waterways; his work earned him a place on the front cover of New York Magazine in 1995, which described him as “The Kennedy who matters”.

But Kennedy – who during his campaign has criticized Biden for overspending on environmental issues – would become better known in the US as a conspiracy theorist.

Kennedy spent years claiming, loudly and wrongly, that vaccines cause autism, while in 2023 alone Kennedy stated that wifi causes “leaky brain”, linked antidepressants to school shootings and said that chemicals in water were making children transgender.

His history of embracing conspiracy theories meant Covid-19 was a perfect storm for Kennedy. His already-existing anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense became “an influential force that spreads false and misleading information”, Associated Press reported, with the group publishing books that falsely claim the Covid-19 vaccine caused a spike in deaths. A report in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2022 named Kennedy’s Twitter account as “the top superspreader” of misinformation about Covid-19.

Kennedy was particularly criticized for a speech he gave at a rally against mandatory Covid vaccines in Washington in January 2022. Standing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy told an animated crowd that unnamed figures were trying to control the American population in a way never seen before.

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in the attic like Anne Frank did,” Kennedy said.

“Today the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run, none of us can hide.”

The remarks caused uproar, not least from the Auschwitz museum, which tweeted: “Exploiting of the tragedy of people who suffered, were humiliated, tortured & murdered by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany – including children like Anne Frank – in a debate about vaccines & limitations during global pandemic is a sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay.”

Kennedy later apologized for saying that people who wished to remain unvaccinated had fewer freedoms than Anne Frank. But he continued to dabble in Covid-19 misinformation, writing in a 2021 book that Anthony Fauci, the top US public health expert during the pandemic, had conspired with Bill Gates to suppress alternative medicine treatments for Covid-19.

Robert F Kennedy Jr announces his entry to the 2024 presidential race as an independent candidate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 9 October 2023. Photograph: Mark Makela/Reuters

Given his history, Kennedy’s declaration, as he announced his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in April 2023, that he was “not an ideal presidential candidate for normal times”, could seem like an understatement. But people barely had a chance to get to grips with his candidacy before, in October, he scrapped the idea of running as a Democrat, and announced an independent campaign, this time claiming that the “two-party establishment” was “leading us all over a cliff”.

As an independent choice, Kennedy represents a still quite old, but not as old as Biden or Trump, candidate. He would be 71 by the time he took office, but Kennedy presents as younger than his two rivals: less jowly, more robust and with a more convincing head of hair. At a campaign stop in June 2023, he stripped to the waist to lift some weights at a gym in Los Angeles, revealing a fairly impressive physique.

On the campaign trial, Kennedy looks the part: that thick silver hair, those big white teeth, that perma-tan. His voice, then, comes as a surprise. Kennedy has a strained, halting tone, owing to spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition which affects his voice.

That condition is far from Kennedy’s only brush with ill health. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a deposition Kennedy had given during his divorce from his second wife, Mary Kathleen Richardson Kennedy. In the deposition, given in 2012, Kennedy said he had experienced memory loss, which “was caused by a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died”.

“I have cognitive problems, clearly,” Kennedy said. “I have short-term memory loss, and I have longer-term memory loss that affects me.”

After the Times article was published, Kennedy tweeted that he was willing “​​to eat 5 more brain worms and still beat President Trump and President Biden in a debate”.

Richardson Kennedy died by suicide in 2012, leaving behind her four children with Kennedy. Before Richardson Kennedy, Kennedy had two children with his first wife, Emily Black, one of whom is called Robert F Kennedy III. In 2014, Kennedy married Cheryl Hines, an actor best known for playing Larry David’s wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The pair live in Los Angeles.

Hines, 58, has sought to distance herself from her husband’s campaign. She said in an interview with Fox News earlier this year that she did not always agree with Kennedy’s politics: “We’ve learned to talk through it. Talk it out. Listen to each other. Sometimes, agree to disagree or say: ‘Oh, I’m going to think about that and I hear what you’re saying,’ or: ‘I don’t like the way you’re saying it. I wish you’d say it in a different way.’”

The fear for Biden and Trump is that Kennedy could be a Ralph Nader figure. Nader ran as the Green party candidate in the 2000 presidential election, and some Democrats still believe that it was his performance in Florida that swung the election away from Al Gore and towards George W Bush.

Early predictions suggested Kennedy – as a scion of the most famous Democratic family in history – would draw support from Biden. Trump and other Republicans certainly seemed to think so, and spent months extolling his virtues – there was even suggestions among rightwing media that Kennedy could be a good vice-president to Trump.

But conservatives might come to regret pumping him up. Polls have shown that Trump supporters are more drawn to Kennedy – with his vaccine skepticism and hardline policies on the border particularly popular – than Biden.

Republican donors have flocked to Kennedy, too. Timothy Mellon, a Wyoming-based billionaire who has previously donated to groups supporting Trump, has given $25m to the Kennedy campaign, while Rolling Stone reported that other donors include regular Republican donors like John Schnatter, the disgraced former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, and a financier who briefly supported Ron DeSantis’s bid for the Republican nomination.

The support is enough for Kennedy to potentially make a nuisance of himself in terms of pulling votes away from Biden or Trump. But that doesn’t mean Kennedy is popular.

Like Biden and Trump, more people dislike Kennedy than like him. According to FiveThirtyEight, 42% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Kennedy, with just 35% seeing him favorably: a favorability rating of -7%. (Trump has a favorability of -12%, Biden -16%.)

He’s a bit less unpopular than his two main opponents, then, which can only be a good thing. But Kennedy has already shown himself to be a problematic figure on the campaign trail.

Last July, he caused controversy when a video recording showed him falsely claiming that the Covid-19 virus had been “ethnically targeted” at Caucasians and Black people, while Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people had greater immunity.

Members of the Kennedy family roundly criticized the candidate after his remarks were made public: Jack Schlossberg, a grandson of President Kennedy, called his cousin’s campaign “an embarrassment” in a video.

Other family members have made it clear that they oppose their namesake’s candidacy. In April, more than a dozen members of the Kennedy family, including six of Kennedy’s siblings, endorsed Biden for president.

That should be galling for Kennedy, who on the campaign trail repeatedly mentions his family history. His Kennedy 2024 website frequently references his uncle, who despite his short term ranked as the ninth best president in a 2022 Siena College poll of historians, and 10th in a similar survey of 154 historians and presidential experts this year. (Biden was placed 14th, Trump came last.)

Kennedy’s uncle president may even have influenced his decision to run as an independent. In a speech in Maryland in 1958, when he was still a senator and was two years away from becoming the 35th president of the US, John F Kennedy said:

“Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past: let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

Kennedy is hoping that Americans will agree with that quote – or at least the bit about not seeking Republican or Democratic answers – come November.

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