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RFK Jr. and the Headache of the Third-Party Candidate

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Is RFK Jr., the conspiracist scion of American political royalty, merely a nuisance, or will he present a genuine threat in 2024?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Wild Card

The Kennedy family is synonymous with the Democratic Party. And, for a time, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. framed his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination as that of a “Kennedy Democrat” who believes in strong unions and the middle class. But last week, he broke with the party.

RFK Jr., who rose to prominence as a respected environmental lawyer before veering into conspiracism and anti-vaccine activism around 2005, said last Monday that he is now running for president as a third-party candidate. “We declare independence from the cynical elites who betray our home and who amplify our divisions,” he said, announcing his decision in Philadelphia. “And finally, we declare independence from the two political parties.” Putting aside the irony of a Kennedy criticizing elites, RFK Jr.’s announcement could add an element of uncertainty into the near-inevitable rematch between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2024. My colleague John Hendrickson, who profiled Kennedy in June and has covered his campaign, told me that, because of various state-level qualifying rules, Kennedy does not appear to have a viable path to collecting the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency as an independent candidate. But even if the possibility of Kennedy actually becoming president is moot, he “could siphon voters away from Biden and Trump, and make it harder for either of them to hit 270,” John said. In a presidential race that may be close, especially in key swing states, a wild-card factor could cause headaches for both sides.

An independent run like RFK Jr.’s could also damage the American public’s already fragile trust in the integrity of the electoral system. As Jesse Wegman wrote in The New York Times this week, if a single candidate is unable to garner 270 electoral votes, a little-known provision in the Twelfth Amendment would kick in, enabling the House to elect the president; each state would cast one vote, and their tally would decide the presidency. “This is about as far from the principle of majority rule as you can get,” Wegman writes, noting that Thomas Jefferson called the provision “the most dangerous blot in our Constitution.”

The likely rematch between Trump and Biden is unwelcome news for many voters: “Americans are suffering a bit of 2020 PTSD, and the prospect of replaying that whole year over again is filling people with dread,” John told me. Poll results released by the Monmouth University Polling Institute earlier this month found that just 19 percent of voters are very enthusiastic about Trump running as the party nominee, and 14 percent are very enthusiastic about Biden. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s favorability ratings have at times surpassed those of both Trump and Biden. But Jon Krosnick, a political-science professor at Stanford University, told me that Kennedy will likely take such a small number of votes from Trump and Biden that his presence will prove inconsequential. “The only way he’s going to be influential in the outcome of the election is if he participates in debates,” which would give him a major platform for his ideas, Krosnick told me. Those experts who do believe that Kennedy could hurt the major-party candidates are divided on whether his presence in the race might inspire anti-vax or libertarian voters to divert their votes from Trump, or cause Biden-weary Democrats to jump ship, hurting the incumbent.

Third-party candidates have always been on the sidelines of American politics. Krosnick explained that sometimes, votes for them make no difference in electoral outcomes, because they tend to attract voters who just wouldn’t have voted otherwise. But these candidates have exerted power at key moments. No candidate from outside the two dominant parties has ever won a presidential election, but third-party candidates have sometimes served as “spoilers,” pulling votes from candidates in close matchups. In 2000, Ralph Nader, who received some 97,000 votes, siphoned votes in the close race—the difference in Florida was about 500 votes—between George Bush and Al Gore. In 2016, Jill Stein garnered votes that could have helped Hillary Clinton in her race against Trump.

“Some third-party independent candidate could arrive at that moment and grab the spotlight” in 2024, but “Robert Kennedy doesn’t strike me as that type of candidate,” Krosnick said. Kennedy isn’t the only third-party contender entering the fray: A third-party centrist group called No Labels has reportedly raised $60 million and qualified for 11 states’ ballots. Some Democrats are threatened by this: No Labels is “going to help the other guy,” Biden told ProPublica. And in July, my colleague Russell Berman wrote that, according to surveys and polling, a moderate independent candidate could capture a decisive number of votes in a close race. Cornel West, the intellectual and activist, is also running; he switched from the Green Party to an independent run earlier this month.

“Extreme polarization,” Krosnick told me, “does make this a special moment in history.” Some voters, desperate for an alternative to Trump or Biden, may vote for whomever they genuinely hope to see in the White House—even if that person has no chance of winning. People who vote for Kennedy, Krosnick said, are voters who think, “I don’t care whether he wins or not. I will feel best about myself if I vote for him.”


Today’s News

  1. Jim Jordan did not secure enough Republican votes to become speaker of the House in a first vote.
  2. At least 500 people were killed by an airstrike at a hospital in Gaza City, according to Palestinian authorities; Israel says the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket from the group Islamic Jihad. President Biden will visit Israel tomorrow.
  3. Ukraine struck Russian helicopters in its eastern region using long-range missiles newly supplied by the United States.

Evening Read

Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Sources: Elise Hardy; Shalom Ormsby; Tim Platt; dobok / Getty

An Awkward Evolutionary Theory for One of Pregnancy’s Biggest Complications

By Katherine J. Wu

In the early 1990s, while studying preeclampsia in Guadeloupe, Pierre-Yves Robillard hit upon a realization that seemed to shake the foundations of his field. Preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that causes some 500,000 fetal deaths and 70,000 maternal deaths around the world each year, had for decades been regarded as a condition most common among new mothers, whose bodies were mounting an inappropriate attack on a first baby. But Robillard, now a neonatologist and epidemiologist at Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de La Réunion, on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, kept seeing the condition crop up during second, third, or fourth pregnancies—a pattern that a few other studies had documented, but had yet to fully explain. Then, Robillard noticed something else. “These women had changed the father,” he told me. The catalyst in these cases of preeclampsia, he eventually surmised, wasn’t the newness of pregnancy. It was the newness of paternal genetic material that, maybe, the mother hadn’t had enough exposure to before.

Robillard’s idea was unconventional not only because it challenged the dogma of the time, but because it implied certain evolutionary consequences … If preeclampsia is a kind of immune overreaction, then perhaps unprotected sex is the world’s most unconventional allergy shot.

Read the full article.

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