York: The RFK Jr. wild card has implications for both parties

For all the talk that has sometimes surrounded his presidential candidacy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was never able to break through in the Democratic primary race against President Joe Biden. Reports would say his support was "growing," or that he was "surging," but he was never able to surpass the 20% support in national polls he enjoyed when he announced his candidacy as a Democrat in late April. In the months since, his support among Democratic voters has slowly slipped. It now stands just below 15% in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls -- 47 points behind Biden.

Biden organized a strong effort among Democrats to strangle the Kennedy challenge in the crib. It worked. Kennedy faced relentless criticism from well-connected Democrats and hit-job articles in the Democratic-adjacent media. The motivating force was a fear that Kennedy would take support away from Biden and allow former President Donald Trump to reclaim the presidency.

All that meant RFK Jr.'s candidacy as a Democrat wasn't going anywhere. No matter how much he campaigned, his situation was not going to improve in the face of broad opposition among Democratic officialdom.

This week, Kennedy changed course. In a speech Monday in Philadelphia, he announced that he was leaving the Democratic race and is now running for president as an independent. Instead of struggling under the hostile domination of the Democratic Party, he will now run freely, although he will likely end up struggling to get on some state ballots as an independent.

As he runs, Kennedy will find himself targeted by both the Democratic and Republican parties. He has already faced new attacks from the Democratic side, and on Monday, to go along with Kennedy's announcement, the Republican National Committee released what it called "23 Reasons to Oppose RFK Jr." Reason Number 3 was, "He has admitted his candidacy will 'take more votes' from the Republican candidate than Biden."

But will Kennedy really take more votes from the Republican candidate, specifically Trump, than from Biden? Or will he take more votes away from Biden than the Republican candidate? Each party will answer in its own interest.

A recent Ipsos survey found Biden and Trump tied in a two-way race at 35% each. But in a three-way race with Kennedy, Trump had a slight lead over Biden, 33% to 31%, with Kennedy at 14%. In that scenario, Kennedy took a little more from Biden than from Trump, but that little bit might be enough to determine the election.

There is another way to gauge what effect Kennedy might have on the general election, and that is to listen to what he says. Kennedy's 48-minute speech Monday was a brilliant effort to cut a path between the two parties, but there is no doubt it leaned more toward the Democratic side of the political argument.

Kennedy analyzed what he called the urge to take sides in politics. When there are just two equally matched sides, he said, disastrous results can follow. "In a two-sided conflict, both parties have a kind of mutual dependency," he said. "Each side depends on the other to define themselves as good guys, in contrast to the other side who, of course, are the bad guys. Well, if you're Team Good, you will do anything, no matter how unscrupulous, to defeat Team Evil. And that's why we've seen both parties sacrificing their core values and the foundational canons of democracy in an all-out struggle for power."

Now, Kennedy said, the battle of Team Good and Team Evil has led to a terrible choice. "Three-quarters of Americans believe that President Biden is too old to govern effectively. President Trump faces multiple civil and criminal trials. Both of them have favorability ratings that are deep in negative territory. That's what two-party politics has given us."

That will probably appeal to the independent streak in millions of American voters. Kennedy encouraged that when he said, "The Democrats are frightened that I'm going to spoil the election for President Biden, and the Republicans are frightened that I'm going to spoil the election for President Trump." He then added: "The truth is, they're both right." A certain type of voter will like that.

If the race is between Biden and Trump, an independent candidate could change the race by attracting even a relatively small number of voters. Kennedy has the ability to do just that.

c. 2023 Universal

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