RFK Jr.’s Trojan Horse Campaign.

On the Ballot in Michigan.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking at a podium. Image Description: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking at a podium.

Summary: For months we’ve said that RFK Jr. is the biggest threat to Biden’s re-election. Now that he’s gained ballot access in Michigan, it’s time to go beyond the vaccine headlines to examine Kennedy the nascent politician and what his candidacy means to this election cycle. Just as the pollsters missed several important cues during the 2016 election, we might be underestimating the impact Kennedy has beyond his loyal environmental and anti-vaccine followers the media focuses on.

For several months now I’ve been saying that the biggest threat to Biden’s reelection—apart from his age, rising inequality, blind support of Israel’s ethnic cleansing policy in Gaza, belief that compromise with Republicans is still possible, the incremental nature of his bottom-up, middle-out strategy not making enough of an impact on the real wages and economic security for the lower and middle classes in this country, failure to meaningful stem the tide of border crossings, inability to connect with young voters—is the specter of RFK Jr.

In fact we were just talking about it on this week’s podcast. And, as if on cue, listener Brendan T. emailed about RFK as I was writing Max Notes this week for the newsletter:

“I have a lot of kids and a lot of jobs/roles so not a lot of time. A friend of mine was talking up RFK Jr., and I didn’t really have a response. So I checked up on his platform, and other than the vaccine bullshit, it seemed pretty good. I know y’all have covered him before, and I’m pretty sure the UNFTR movement is not a fan. I am probably not remembering, but could I get a refresher? What is wrong with this guy.. other than and in addition to the vaccine bullshit? Is he leaving a dangerous libertarian stance out of his platform?”

First off, I’m really grateful for this email because it perfectly encapsulates the voter mindset as we plod through the never-ending election cycle. And as a reminder no one needs, our “Chart of the Week” from the newsletter last week was a snapshot of polling data from FiveThirtyEight on election day 2016 giving Hillary Clinton a 71.4% chance of winning. The purpose of including this bleak memory was to illustrate just how bad polling is at capturing true voter sentiment in this era of fractured attention.

Take Brendan’s lead-in for example: I have a lot of kids and a lot of jobs/roles so not a lot of time.This resonates with me in a powerful way because it’s all of us. And heading into the election, we all know Trump and we all know Biden. But how well do we actually know Bobby Kennedy, Jr.?

The answer is, not well. And I think that’s not only deliberate but it’s a hidden advantage considering how dismal Trump and Biden’s favorability ratings are. He’s the guy that nobody sees coming.

Last week was an inflection point of sorts as RFK Jr. picked up ballot access in the battleground state of Michigan making it only the second state to affirm his placement on the ballot in November. But boy-oh-boy is it a big one. While this novice politician faces an enormous and expensive uphill battle to obtain access in all 50 states and DC, it’s a bit of a nightmare scenario for the Biden team that is already struggling to contend with the significant opposition movement among Arab and Muslim voters in Michigan to his blind support of Israel. Recall that in 2020, the states Biden flipped to secure victory were Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.

This election is projected to be much closer so every flipped battleground state makes an enormous difference. That’s why the Arizona abortion bill, the gerrymandering battles in Georgia, Fetterman’s bizarre turn in Pennsylvania and the turnout of uncommitted Democratic primary protest votes in Michigan and Wisconsin were such a big deal. These are subplots to the larger narrative that have an outsized impact on the election because of where they are. Now some are favorable to Biden like the Arizona abortion ban, others favor Trump as in the case of the Palestine protest votes. The unknown, of course, is how RFK would fare in these areas.

The New York Times just did a piece, as a matter of fact, on an ex-Bernie pollster who has been raising the red flag about RFK with respect to key voting blocs, specifically young and Latino voters. They also reference a recent Quinnipiac poll that showed Biden with a 20 point edge over Trump head-to-head in a subset of voters but that the lead diminishes to 9 points when RFK is included.

Most mainstream news outlets are focused on Kennedy’s anti-vaccination stance and are dismissive of him because of it. But that’s a dangerous strategy for the liberal establishment to play. Because most data suggests that anti-vaxers used to align more with the left than the right in the pre-COVID days. So there are subgroups that are hard to pin down and might be notoriously unresponsive to polling strategies. Like tech bros that take supplements and grind all day while listening to Joe Rogan. Older African-American voters that have great sympathy for what Bobby’s father represented. Environmentalists. Libertarians. Anti-War activists. Somehow both anti-semites and pro-Israel voters have taken a shine to him. Perhaps first-time voters, considering he’s the most popular presidential candidate on TikTok.

I can promise you this, TikTok enthusiasts and tech bros aren’t responding to pollsters and if the Democratic establishment takes the Latino and African American vote for granted, again, it could be a fatal mistake.

A nip here, a tuck there. A few more swing states and a following that might be nearly impossible to poll and RFK Jr. could turn this into one of the wildest and most unpredictable elections in American history. Now his path so far has been a bit curious. Running first as a Democrat, declaring as an independent, flirting with the Libertarian nomination the entire way, which may still be possible and he says he won’t pursue. It’s been a bit of a wild ride and he’s discovered the hard way how difficult it is to actually secure ballot access—a barrier the corporate duopoly worked diligently to erect ever since Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote with 19 millions votes in 1992.

I mean, think about that. Almost a fifth of eligible voters were saying “fuck it” in 1992. It’s not a stretch to think that could be significantly higher in 2024 considering who’s running.

Now to answer Brendan’s question, it’s nearly impossible to say who or what RFK Jr. really is. Not only because the corporate media has tried to paint him as a single issue candidate and looney bird, but because he shifts with the tide and is more adept at projecting a populist image that I think he gets credit for.

In terms of platform, most of his stances are pretty run-of-the-mill:

  • Student debt cancellation with no plan as to how this could get done.
  • Police reform with pretty standard ideas of representation in law enforcement.
  • New Democrat style economic development policies like investing in Black owned businesses and offering microloans to Black entrepreneurs. Tried and failed miserably under Clinton by the way.
  • Ending proxy wars and withdrawing troops and nukes from Russia’s border in return for Putin pulling out of Ukraine.
  • Ending endless wars by reinvesting in the military at home instead of abroad, which is painfully light on details except that the theoretical savings would quite literally pay for Social Security to be funded forever, ensure dignified retirements for everybody, contribute to universal childcare and healthcare and so on. But he doesn’t say these things are part of the plan, just that they’re theoretically possible if we just got rid of the military altogether. It’s a non-answer-answer designed to appeal to the Bernie wing, Libertarians and young people in rhetoric only.
  • On the border he’s indistinguishable from Biden except more prone to lean on terms like “illegal” and appearing tough on migrants.
  • He wants to regenerate all of America’s soil by getting rid of agricultural chemicals. Okay.
  • Restrict natural gas exports to reduce the price of fossil fuels domestically, which displays either a complete ignorance of how fossil fuel pricing works or he’s just pandering and knows that this is stupid and illogical.
  • He says he wants to regulate big businesses so that we can lift restrictions off of small businesses but doesn’t say how, what or why. But when I’ve seen him interviewed, he parrots most of the neoliberal ‘free market will cure all’ talking points that had been tried and failed for 50 plus years. Make no mistake, in terms of economy, he’s a free market libertarian when it comes to everything but vaccines and pesticides.
  • On abortion he’s riding a fine line. So his platform does not explicitly say “I’m pro choice.” Rather it says “More choices, more life.” So he’s trying to have it all ways on this issue. He never really addresses Roe v. Wade, doesn’t say pro-choice or pro-life, just that it shouldn’t be economically impossible to have a baby and that’s how we can provide bodily autonomy. It’s a non policy that he’ll get called out on as we get further down the road but you can bet that he’ll avoid the conversation as much as humanly possible.
  • Perhaps the most inventive idea he has is the concept of a federally backed 3% mortgage bond to make homeownership more attainable. Again, no details on how this would work alongside the private market, if it’s means tested, where it sits alongside Fannie & Freddie, FHA, Veteran loans and other programs. Just a neat little universal talking point that helps him stand out and connect with people left behind in the housing market.

So that’s pretty much the sum of it. A little something-something for everyone. If we take the big social stuff and the vaccine stuff out of the mix and just focus on foreign policy and domestic economic policy RFK is so woefully uninformed it’s scary that he is polling as high as he is. And if he connects with voters it will be out of pure emotional alignment on specific issues, or out of complete fucking frustration that we’re running back the 2020 election with the two least popular national figures. His grasp of markets and economics is almost laughable in everything that I’ve seen and heard from him, and reading his policy statements does nothing to dissuade me from this sentiment.

And not that I think VP choices really matter, but his selection of Nicole Shanahan was a purely cynical money play. Between the two of them they have zero political experience. But to the extent that she connects, let’s let her opening salvo tell you a little something about why she’s there. “If you are one of those disillusioned Republicans, I welcome you to join me, a disillusioned Democrat.”

That’s why I’ve been warning since day one that RFK is a bigger threat to Biden than he is to Trump. I think people initially thought that his anti-vax stance would compete with the Q-Anon element of MAGA, but there is no universe in which MAGA Trump supporters will vote for anyone but Trump. None.

So here’s how you know establishment Democrats are finally hip to the idea that this guy is the real problem. This week a group of former colleagues at the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a campaign against Kennedy’s candidacy, saying he’s no longer recognizable from the once environmental champion and legal advocate they once knew. These former associates join another rather prominent group in calling for Kennedy to step down: The Kennedy family.

So, it’s interesting to note that just last month RFK said he’s closing the door on a possible run on the Libertarian ticket. That’s how confident he is at the moment that he’ll secure ballot access across the country. It’s a smart play because he can really do that, because the Libertarian Party is entrenched enough now to carry stigmas. As an independent RFK gets to bob and weave and control his own narrative. But make no mistake, despite his inane and fantastical math that charts a theoretical path to victory, he’s in this to spoil, not to win.

And even though he fired the political consultant who said the quiet part out loud a few weeks ago when she explained how his candidacy basically screws Biden and elects Trump, that’s what this is. I mean, maybe it didn’t start out that way. Maybe he really believes his own horseshit. But in the end, this is what you need to know about RFK.

You don’t have to ascribe to the vaccine controversy one way or another to know that he has zero experience. Speaks out of both sides of his mouth. And has no idea what he’s talking about when he talks about economic policy or foreign affairs. But he knows goddamn well that he’s a Trojan Horse for Trump if he makes it onto the ballot.

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Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).