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The Independents Are Off to the Races, but Is RFK Jr. Offsides or Just Off?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the former senator and U.S. attorney general, and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, is expected to announce his candidacy as an independent for the United States presidency today. This is a change of course for RFK Jr., who up until recently was looking to challenge President Biden for the Democratic Party nomination. When it became clear that there was no way that Biden was going to engage with him in debate, not to mention that the Kennedy heir has policy views which are largely out of step with Democratic primary voters, he decided to change tactics to maintain a role in the presidential race by announcing as an independent candidate in the general election.

The issue is what kind of role will Kennedy play? He clearly has no chance of being elected president of the United States.

The question is, will his role be to draw votes away from Biden, or former President Donald Trump, or will his relevancy significantly be diminished by either not getting on the ballot in a meaningful number of states, or simply becoming irrelevant as a candidate by next November?

What Kennedy does represent is the first of what will likely be at least two independent candidacies for president next year. So, his declaration of candidacy not only signifies independents being off to the races, so to speak, but also underscores how “off” Kennedy really is.

While Kennedy has some legitimate claims to being a serious environmentalist, his views on other subjects range from completely crazy to extremely ill-conceived. He is a hardcore anti-vaxxer who has spread nonsense about the harm of all vaccines with a range of theories that have been scientifically debunked. He has been accused of antisemitism by preposterously suggesting that that the Covid-19 virus was engineered to spare Jewish people in claiming that Ashkenazi Jews were immune to the virus. He has also indicated his belief in a bunch of conspiracy notions from radiation from wi-fi causing cancer, to chemicals in the water supply producing more transgender youth, along with a slew of other nutty theories that suggest to those who know his views that he is simply “off.”

Kennedy’s other policy positions are not worth spending a lot of time on given the fringe theories expressed above. It is enough to say that he believes that the United States should stop assistance to Ukraine, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) indicated he would consider appointing Kennedy as commissioner of the FDA if DeSantis were elected president. Hence, it is not hard to demonstrate Kennedy’s views are closest to the Republican fringe—the reason many in the Kennedy clan have disavowed him.

That raises some interesting questions about just what Kennedy’s role in the presidential race would end up being. First, it needs to be made clear that there is no assurance that he will even get on the ballot in most states. There have been rumors based on a meeting he had with the head of the Libertarian Party, that he might get that party’s already established ballot lines. It is unclear whether that will happen, but if it does not, the hard, time consuming, and expensive work of getting on the ballots of 50 states should not be underestimated as a huge hurdle for him.

Moreover, it appears that much of Kennedy’s money so far has come from Republican sources that were thrilled with the notion that he would challenge Biden in a Democratic primary. It is unclear that such money will continue to flow if he is a general election candidate with views closer to MAGA Republicans than Democrats, and he comes to be seen as a threat to Trump. Steve Bannon and Fox News may not find the Kennedy candidacy so interesting to elevate or spotlight anymore.

The limited polling that has been done most recently suggests that Kennedy’s views have sunk in significantly enough that he now has very little standing among Democratic voters but is popular enough among Republican voters to poll better than some of the leading challengers to Trump for the Republican nomination.

Regardless of Kennedy’s role as a third-party candidate, it is becoming clear that there is going to be at least one other independent challenge to what is clearly shaping up to be a Biden versus Trump rematch. The much more significant challenge that is likely to develop is coming from the group No Labels, which looks as if it will get ballot access in all 50 states and put forward a Republican and Democratic unity ticket, consisting of what could well be prominent moderate candidates from both parties. This would be a very serious third-party effort which would undoubtedly drain far more votes from Biden than from Trump and has the White House very concerned. Some believe that the No Labels threat will not come to pass, and that is the hope of anyone who believes re-electing Donald Trump would be a complete disaster for the nation.

While it might be suggested that Kennedy drains as much of the vote from Trump as a moderate unity ticket would drain from Biden, at closer examination that seems quite implausible. The No Labels ticket is likely to be mainstream and centrist, positioning itself between Biden and Trump, clearly siphoning off anti-Trump votes that would otherwise go to Biden. They would mainly consist of Republicans who are disenchanted with the former president and independents who are completely dissatisfied with both Biden and Trump. Kennedy, on the other hand, in espousing views that are anti-vaccine, anti-Ukraine, and anti-government in the form of various conspiracy theories, sounds too much like so many of Trump’s “off” positions that there would seem to be little reason for a voter to cast a ballot for Kennedy instead of embracing all those views by voting for Trump.

A recent NBC news poll indicated that 14 percent of voters would support independent candidates, with support split between a No Labels, a Libertarian, and a Green Party ticket. No candidate names were attached to any of those party labels, so how much support any one of those party candidates would garner means very little at this point. What it did show, however, was that there was a substantial appetite for a choice beyond Biden or Trump and that with that substantial third-party vote, Trump would win the popular vote by 3 points, and undoubtedly win key swing states by that margin.

Where the Kennedy candidacy creates real political three dimensional chess is what the impact Kennedy’s presence on the ballot, if he is able get on it, would have on the No Labels independent candidates. In some respects, if a No Labels candidate is going to drain heavily from Biden, and RFK Jr. has little impact on the Trump vote, it is a better outcome if a No Labels candidate were to win two or three swing states, rather than Trump winning them. That would result in no candidate getting the necessary 270 votes in the electoral college. This would indeed set up an unprecedented situation where the Biden and No Labels tickets might well be able to negotiate a compromise before the Electoral College meets on Dec. 15, following the election, so that the election did not end up in the House of Representatives, which in all likelihood would award the deadlocked Electoral College vote to Donald Trump.

Under this so called “contingent election” scenario, a strong No Labels effort would have to win at least a 34 percent plurality of the vote in those few swing states to create the Electoral College deadlock, but if even 1 percent or 2 percent of the voters looking for an independent candidate were being syphoned off to Kennedy, then that could result in both Biden and the No Labels candidate losing to Trump in those states. That would mean a straight-out Trump victory, with calamitous assists by both Kennedy and No Labels bringing on that disaster.

There are a number of scenarios that spin out from all of this, but the only good one is a one-on-one race where Donald Trump has a clear ceiling that will enable democracy to prevail and Biden to be re-elected. Kennedy has a name that cannot be ignored, but a set of views that voters will probably find easier to support coming out of the mouth of Donald Trump, and Kennedy’s relevance in 2024 may well fade into oblivion. The No Labels effort has no names attached to it, yet, to ignore or not, but represents an existential threat to the Republic by giving Trump an enormous advantage in catalyzing votes to be drained away from Biden. All we do know is that with RFK’s imminent announcement, we are off to the races with independent candidates who may very likely play a decisive role in the 2024 election.

Tom Rogers is executive chairman of Oorbit Gaming and Entertainment, an editor-at-large for Newsweek, the founder of CNBC and a CNBC contributor. He also established MSNBC, is the former CEO of TiVo, and a member of Keep Our Republic, an organization dedicated to preserving the nation’s democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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