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Odd man out

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Is Lucky He Didn’t Qualify for the CNN Debate

The independent presidential candidate is running on fumes. More exposure would only kill his campaign faster.

A closeup of Robert F. Kenedy Jr.'s face talking.
Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking at the Libertarian Convention in May

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is not going well. At all. 

That may, in fact, be an understatement. He has been steadily declining in the polls for months and now sits at around 7 percent, down from nearly 20 percent in the fall. It’s possible, meanwhile, that many of his biggest fans may not even get the chance to vote for him—he currently only has enough signatures to appear on the ballot in just nine states. And he’s hemorrhaging cash. If not for his vice president—an unknown tech billionaire who may have been selected because her immense wealth has allowed her to fund their political operations—his campaign might very well be flat broke. It raised a paltry $2.6 million in May, suggesting that no one really wants to give him money.  Kennedy is, in other words, spending millions to be on the ballot in a handful of states and is only getting less popular in the process. 

On Thursday, Kennedy’s campaign got even more bad news. He would not be appearing at next week’s presidential debate due to his low poll numbers. The candidate was apoplectic. “My exclusion by Presidents Biden and Trump from the debate is undemocratic, un-American, and cowardly,” Kennedy Jr. seethed in a statement released soon after CNN announced that he didn’t make the count. “Americans want an independent leader who will break apart the two-party duopoly. They want a President who will heal the divide, restore the middle class, unwind the war machine, and end the chronic disease epidemic.”

That may be true—at the very least Americans certainly say they want those things in a leader when polled. But it’s abundantly clear that they don’t want Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The candidate should be grateful he didn’t make the cut—appearing in next week’s debate would only accelerate his campaign’s demise. 

The biggest problem with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is that voters do not like him. That’s not an overstatement. Last October, his favorability rating, per 538’s average, was plus eight points; he was, around the same period, regularly polling in the 15–20 percent range. His favorability rating today is minus nine points; he has been polling in the high single digits for months. 

Kennedy Jr.’s campaign wants to make this out to be a media conspiracy—the press is colluding with the major party candidates to suppress an independent candidate who would be the people’s choice! But there’s no reason to believe that’s the case. Kennedy Jr. began the race as an unknown with a famous name that often (incorrectly) brings to mind a rosier, earlier period in American history. Voters have subsequently gotten to know Kennedy Jr., and it is abundantly clear that they do not like what they see. His support has steadily declined since the race actually began and voters started to actually consider who they wanted to vote for. 

That is not surprising. At all. Kennedy Jr.’s platform is a mishmash of ideas that hints at another big problem with his campaign: It is the deranged marriage of consultant-driven nonsense on one hand and the candidate’s own conspiracy-addled bullshit on the other. It is a pro-environmental campaign that also enjoys speaking ominously about the national deficit and the need to balance the budget. It is a campaign that is critical of America’s support for Ukraine but sees little wrong with Israel’s devastating military campaign in Gaza. At every turn it is overrun with strange conspiracy theories about vaccines, medicine, and public health. For every plank in his platform that appeals to a Trump supporter there are three that repel them; for every liberal point he makes in a stump speech he makes seven that would leave a potential Biden voter scowling or shaking their head. 

Despite his famous name, Kennedy Jr. is also a shockingly unpolished and uncharismatic presence. He’s prone to rambling on the stump and has a stodgy mien that’s hardly inviting—particularly given his tendency to get lost in the feverswamps. (I attended a press event with the candidate that was maybe the single most embarrassing political event I have ever attended—and I’ve been to several Trump rallies. In it, Kennedy Jr. and his campaign manager made the laughable, fantastical case that they would be leading in a two-person race and that Joe Biden should drop out so RFK Jr. could defeat Donald Trump.) Kennedy Jr. has die-hard supporters, to be clear—most of whom are conspiracy-addled, obsessed with his (dead) family members, or both. But he’s done nothing to attract anyone else—quite the opposite.

And so he should be counting his lucky stars that he won’t be participating in CNN’s debate. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is struggling with a simple, insurmountable political problem: Exposure is very bad for it and for him. If he wants to keep running—and polling in the high single digits—he should be happy that he’ll be watching on TV like the rest of us.