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RFK is now openly gunning for Trump voters — and Republicans are starting to worry

RFK is now openly gunning for Trump voters — and Republicans are starting to worry

“The Wuhan Cover-Up” blares the subject line of a recent presidential campaign email. Inside, it’s all impenetrable conspiracy theory language that reads more like a QAnon post than a normal political fundraiser:

 Why wasn’t Dr. Anthony Fauci charged with a crime, when he lied under oath about his relationships with Peter Daszak and Ralph Baric in order to cover-up Wuhan Coronavirus research? Apparently, lying under oath is only a crime when it contradicts established narratives.

Zombie COVID-19 conspiracy theories? False and defamatory accusations? QAnon-style rhetoric designed to overwhelm and bamboozle the reader? These abusive tactics are all the red flags of MAGA communication. To be certain, fundraising emails across the partisan spectrum can be alarmist and hyperbolic, but accusing innocent people of crimes and spreading lies about deadly diseases are lines most candidates don’t cross. The exception, of course, is Donald Trump and his imitators, like Arizona’s Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake. But outside of the MAGA universe, such tactics are frowned upon for two reasons. One, it’s downright evil. Two, it wouldn’t work on voters who are outside of the MAGA bubble, as normal people tend to be turned off by slander and overt disinformation. 

But curiously this email did not come from Trump or Lake or any other figures associated with the ethics-free world of MAGA campaigning. It came, readers may not be surprised to learn, from the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an independent presidential candidate. The conventional wisdom in Washington has long been that Kennedy is running a spoiler campaign against President Joe Biden, trying to siphon off enough Democratic votes that Donald Trump wins the election. After all, Kennedy used to be a Democrat and his name is so famous his family had to hold a presser disavowing his candidacy. 

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This email, however, seems squarely aimed at would-be Trump voters, the only people so soaked in pandemic paranoia and conspiracy theories that any of this would even make sense to them. It’s a weird choice for someone trying to undermine Biden’s chances! It makes sense, however, if we assume that Kennedy’s main priority with his fake run for president is not to spoil the race, but to draw attention and recruit new marks for his longstanding anti-vaccination grift. If you’re looking for gullible people who will give you money to lie to them, you will be far more successful appealing to Trump voters than Biden voters. 

Kennedy can be this liberal-triggering agent they can use to taunt people they hate, which has long mattered more to MAGA than policy concerns.

For months, polls have shown that Kennedy is taking away more voters from Biden than Trump, based mostly on Democrats who are dissatisfied with Biden and who knew little about Kennedy besides his name. That’s shifted recently. A new NBC News poll shows Biden is two points behind Trump in a two-way race, but two points ahead of Trump if Kennedy is an option. In a Marist poll, Biden’s three-point lead widens to five points if Kennedy is on the ballot. It appears the more voters learn about Kennedy — that he’s anti-vaccine, a conspiracy theorist, and an all-around weirdo — the more Democrats are turned off and the more MAGA voters are intrigued. 

Hoping he would be a spoiler to benefit Trump, wealthy Republicans have been donating heavily to Kennedy, making them his main source of funding. It’s not unreasonable to believe, therefore, that he’s in this race to hurt Biden. But the likelier possibility is that Kennedy is in this as an old-fashioned grift, and cares less about the outcome of the race than in getting attention and making money. 

Some crucial context is that Kennedy is the head of an anti-vaccine group that notoriously peddled medical disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic to great profit. As the Washington Post reported, Kennedy’s group “received $23.5 million in contributions, grants and other revenue in 2022 alone — eight times what it collected the year before the pandemic began.” Kennedy’s salary from running the organization doubled due to this windfall, from $255,000 before the pandemic to over half a million in 2022. With the pandemic functionally over, so are the vast majority of vaccine mandates. That is bad news for anti-vaccination organizations, who depended on the hysteria over mandatory vaccines to raise money. 

It’s not a leap, therefore, to see that Kennedy is likely running for president to find a new source of suckers who will give him money. (And attention, which also seems a big motivating factor.) The first set of rubes were those rich GOP donors. But those people are fairweather funders, who will abandon him the moment he’s no longer useful. The real money, in the longer term, is in becoming a cult-like leader for QAnon adhernts and other credulous people who may not be rich but are numerous. By targeting MAGA in his search for dummies, Kennedy is simply following that adage: Go hunting where the ducks are. 

The QAnon angle is one that is often overlooked when discussing Kennedy, but shouldn’t be. One of the most popular QAnon prophecies is that Kennedy’s deceased first cousin, John F. Kennedy Jr., is secretly alive and will make his triumphant return to the public eye in 2024 when he is announced as Trump’s running mate. It’s likely not a coincidence, then, that earlier this month, Kennedy tweeted, “President Trump calls me an ultra-left radical. I’m soooo liberal that his emissaries asked me to be his VP. I respectfully declined the offer.”

For many QAnon believers, it’s not much of a leap to get them to wonder if the Kennedy of their prophecy is actually RFK, and not his dead cousin. If so, they are going to be angry with Trump for screwing up the plan. 

Kennedy was responding to Trump claiming that he’s a “leftist radical,” which shows Trump is worried about his own people abandoning him for Kennedy. Reporting from Politico confirms that it’s not just Trump, either, but the larger GOP that is starting to fret. Kennedy is starting to pull small-dollar donors away from Trump. In turn, Trump’s campaign and allies are starting to badmouth Kennedy more. 

To be certain, the Biden campaign still has much to worry about when it comes to Kennedy. Low-information Democratic voters who just see the name and throw their vote away are a very real threat. But Sarah Longwell, the never-Trump data specialist who publishes The Bulwark, argued on a recent podcast that there’s “a real opportunity” for the Biden campaign to push some Trump voters towards Kennedy. She notes that, in her focus groups, what Trump voters say they like about Kennedy is that “he is defying his family.” 

“What do Republicans like more than anything else?” she said. “Somebody of the libs who’s hitting the libs.” She reminded listeners that Trump used to be coded this way, as a former Democrat who has turned on his party. Now Kennedy can be this liberal-triggering agent they can use to taunt people they hate, which has long mattered more to MAGA than policy concerns. Already, Kennedy has higher favorability ratings with Republican voters than Democrats. 

There are signs that the Biden campaign is aware of this and is trying to find ways to sell Kennedy to MAGA voters. The Kennedy family press conference, for instance. Most media took it at face value, as the Kennedys trying to discourage Democratic voters from backing their black sheep of a relative. But there may have been another, more important audience: MAGA voters. The message to those voters is that the best way to make the Kennedys cry, perhaps even better than voting for Trump, is to vote for RFK Jr. Similarly, billboards that put Kennedy in a MAGA hat and call him a “spoiler for Trump” aren’t just about making Democrats dislike Kennedy. They will also make Trump voters more interested in switching to Kennedy.

None of this is an argument for complacency. Kennedy is still a major threat to Biden, due to those low-information voters who may not know he’s an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist. This race promises to be chaotic as it is, and introducing third-party spoilers makes it all the more unpredictable. Kennedy, whose main goals are money and attention, might discover he can start getting more wealthy Republican donors if he shifts tactics again. All sorts of terrible things could happen. 

For now, the state of play appears to be this: Kennedy’s main goal appears to be pulling in marks for his anti-vaccination grift. That means he’s got a lot more reason to make a play for MAGA voters than Biden voters. Especially if Trump continues down his path of total self-absorption, Kennedy has a real opportunity to chip off some of his voters by speaking to their esoteric concerns about vaccine mind control and other imaginary threats. The polls suggest this is already happening, and there could be many more chances down the line for MAGA voters to consider giving Kennedy a chance. 

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