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Deep Breaths

Why Democrats Shouldn’t Worry About RFK Jr.

Kennedy’s choice of running mate, Nicole Shanahan, is the strongest evidence yet that his campaign is desperate and unserious.

Nicole Shanahan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu/Getty
Nicole Shanahan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earlier this week

On Tuesday, as he announced Nicole Shanahan, a top donor and little-known 38-year-old Silicon Valley lawyer with no political experience, as his running mate for president, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said the quiet part out loud. “Our campaign is a spoiler. I agree with that,” he said. “It is a spoiler for President Biden and for President Trump. It’s a spoiler for the war machine. It’s a spoiler for Wall Street and Big Ag, and Big Tech, and Big Telecom, and Big Pharma, and the corporate-owned media and all the corrupt politicians and corporations.”

This is Kennedy’s independent campaign in a nutshell (as it were). He portrays himself as a political outsider who’s taking on every imaginable behemoth in America—including, almost incidentally, the two major-party candidates for president, neither of whom is generating any enthusiasm with voters broadly. And then there’s the obligatory reference to “Big Pharma,” a dog whistle heard loud and clear by his core constituency: anti-vaxxers.

Which candidate might Kennedy spoil: Biden or Trump? It’s unclear enough that leaders from both parties are worried about him. If he can get on the ballot in swing states—which is easier now with Shanahan’s riches—he could very well tip the scales of the 2024 contest. So Democrats have assembled a team of political operatives tasked with taking him down (mostly by emphasizing his many loony positions), and Trump has begun painting him as a member of the “radical left.”

But the fear—which seems most prevalent among Democrats, who are given to panic—that Kennedy’s support is strong enough to decide the next president is overblown, if not downright hysterical. And his selection of Shanahan is the clearest sign yet that his insurgent campaign, contra hyperbolic headlines about his polling numbers, is running on fumes.

Nicole Shanahan is not the type of running mate who a serious presidential candidate chooses. Very little is known about her at all, aside from the fact that she was briefly married to Google founder Sergey Brin, has been a lawyer in Silicon Valley, and has worked with or serves on the board of a number of tech companies straight out of the HBO show Silicon Valley. (Shanahan is, for instance, the “global joy officer” for something called the “Sloomoo Institute.”) We also know she has no political experience.

What Shanahan does have is money. She has been one of Kennedy’s most important donors, bankrolling a controversial Super Bowl ad and pouring $4 million into his campaign. Kennedy’s super PAC says he has enough signatures in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada, four of the seven swing states that will likely decide the 2024 contest, and Shanahan’s deep pockets could help them get on the ballot in other key states. That alone is scary, given that the race could well come down to a few thousand votes in any one of those states.

And yet, Kennedy’s choice of Shanahan, indeed his entire search for a running mate, suggests an underlying weakness in his campaign. She beat out New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers (a virulent anti-vaxxer who thinks that mountains are the remnants of ancient trees, like from the movie Avatar), former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (who thinks 9/11 was an inside job), and the rapper Killer Mike (whose name is Killer Mike).* Perhaps Kennedy was seeking someone who would emphasize his outsider status and appeal to young voters, but the inescapable conclusion is that Kennedy is not running a serious campaign and thus can’t find a serious running mate.

So maybe he settled on someone who at least had a lot of money. Fair enough; running for president is expensive. But that would suggest Kennedy is facing a money crunch. Back in January, a super PAC close to Kennedy called American Values 2024 reported that it had raised $50 million, but half of that came from just two people: Republican megadonor Timothy Mellon, who gave $15 million to American Values in 2023 (and $10 million to a pro-Trump super PAC), and private security honcho Gavin de Becker, who gave $10 million. Mellon’s largesse was likely motivated by the assumption that Kennedy, who until October was running as a Democrat, hurt Biden much more than Trump.

But that’s not necessarily the case—the polling data is inconsistent and noisy. Consider one polling outfit: Quinnipiac. A November poll found that Biden gained two points on Trump when Kennedy was included among the choices for president, but a January poll and another one on Wednesday both found that Biden lost four points to Trump in that scenario. And yet, those questions also included Green Party candidate Jill Stein and independent candidate Cornel West—two candidates who would seem more likely to draw votes from Biden than Trump. This suggests that Kennedy is spoiling Biden and Trump equally, or at least that it’s unclear enough to potentially close off a pro-Trump fundraising lane for Kennedy.

Enter Shanahan. But picking a running mate because you’re desperate for cash and no one else will do it does not exactly generate a lot of confidence in Kennedy’s operation. Shanahan, moreover, is untested. Running for president is really hard even if you have political experience—just ask Kamala Harris. Running for vice president is also not easy for the same reason—just ask Sarah Palin. Shanahan will now face a level of scrutiny she never has before and will be forced to essentially learn a new skill—running for national office—that she has no training for. To be fair, neither Trump (in 2016) nor Kennedy (now) had that experience, but they did enter the race as longtime public figures with extensive media and speaking experience. Giving presentations on whether A.I. lawyers can replace real lawyers isn’t quite the same.

The caveat here is that Shanahan gives Biden more to worry about than Trump. She stresses that she’s a “progressive through and through” and has expressed support for vaccines. It only takes peeling off a handful of voters in a handful of states to swing the election, and Democrats are certainly sweating her selection more than Republicans are.

But it’s easy to forget—thanks to a primary season that was over before it started—how early we still are in the presidential race. Most voters aren’t paying much attention yet. So the polls must be taken with a grain of salt, and a lot can happen over the next seven months. Kennedy is pulling double digits in surveys right now, but his name recognition comes primarily from his famous surname. People like the Kennedy name! As voters get to know him more, they’re less likely to associate him with that glamorous, ill-fated political dynasty. We already have evidence that they recoil when faced with his actual positions—or even when they’re reminded that most of the other Kennedys hate him and support Biden instead. Enlisting Shanahan as his running mate won’t alter those dynamics and instead may raise more questions about what it is, exactly, Kennedy is trying to accomplish with this campaign. I’m starting to think that even Kennedy himself is wondering.

* This article originally misstated the state Jesse Ventura governed.