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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Recent Polls Say About Who RFK, Jr. Helps

So, “Will Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoil the election for Biden — or Trump?” That’s the question Nathaniel Rakich addresses at abcnews.com, and writes:

Both sides have valid reasons for concern; there’s some evidence to suggest that Kennedy would take more votes away from the Democratic presidential nominee, and some evidence to suggest that he might take more votes away from the Republican nominee. But at the end of the day, his impact on the presidential race is probably being overstated. Third-party candidates rarely win a significant share of the vote, and the election would have to be extremely close for Kennedy’s presence to change who actually wins.

Only a few polls so far have tested a hypothetical three-way race between Kennedy, Trump and President Biden, but they’ve mostly found the same thing: Kennedy’s presence slightly increases Trump’s margin over Biden. On average, Trump leads Biden by only 0.5 percentage points in national polls when Kennedy isn’t included, but that lead grows to an average of 1.8 points in the three-way matchups.

Granted, one year plus out from Election Day, all such polls can end up meaning nothing. There is also an argument that Democrats may suffer more damage from Cornell West’s candidacy for the presidency. Here’s a basket of recent polls, shared by Rakich:

“National polls of the 2024 general election that have asked both about a head-to-head matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and a three-way matchup between Biden, Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.”

Echelon Insights Sept. 25-28 R+3 R+4 R+1
Ipsos/Reuters Oct. 3-4 EVEN R+2 R+2
Cygnal Oct. 3-5 EVEN R+1 R+1
Beacon/Shaw/Fox News Oct. 6-9 D+1 EVEN R+1
Average R+1 R+2 R+1
Rakish continues,
“On the other hand, we shouldn’t take those three-way polls as gospel. First of all, the shifts toward Trump are tiny — well within the polls’ margins of error, which means they could just be noise in the data. (However, the fact that four separate surveys all found roughly the same thing does make us more confident that the pattern is real.) Additionally, even if those polls suggest that Kennedy’s support is mostly coming from Democrats today, that doesn’t mean that will be the case come November 2024. Polls of the general election taken so early in the cycle have historically not proven very accurate.”
In fact, there’s one good reason to think that Kennedy could actually hurt the GOP nominee more than the Democratic one: He’s a lot more popular with Republicans than with Democrats. In the past month, five pollsters have conducted polls on Kennedy’s favorable and unfavorable ratings broken down by party. On average, his net favorability among Republicans is +27 points (55 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable) — but his average net favorability among Democrats is -10 points (35 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable).
Rakich notes that “Kennedy holds a number of beliefs that put him closer to the Republican base than the Democratic one. Most famously, he is a vocal skeptic of vaccines, but he has also said that gun control does not meaningfully reduce gun violence and opposes aiding Ukraine in its war against Russia.” However, Rakich adds, “Support for third-party candidates tends to decline over the course of the campaign, as voters get skittish about casting a ballot that “won’t matter” and retreat to their preferred (or least hated) major-party candidate.”
It may be that Kennedy’s candidacy will prove to be a wash, taking roughly equal numbers from the nominees of the Democrats and Republicans. And despite all of the bellyaching about 3rd party candidates hurting one party or the other, there is probably a good chance that many, if not most, 3rd party voters weren’t going to vote for one of the nominees of the two main parties anyway. If Biden, Democrats and especially the media do a good job of making Kennedy explain why we should let Putin have his way with the Ukraine, why we shouldn’t have better gun safety laws or how he knows more about vaccine medicine than highly-trained professionals, his polling numbers will likely diminish even further.

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