The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most pivotal election cycles in decades for independent and alternative candidates.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is gaining political traction unheard of as an independent candidate in the 21st century. RFK Jr. had previously sought to win the Democratic nomination but ended this bid in an open letter decrying the Democratic National Committee for abandoning its long legacy of promoting free speech and civil rights, resisting corporate interests and enfranchising as many voters as possible. RFK Jr.’s conspiracy-friendly platform already limited his potential to secure the Democratic nomination. Therefore, his transition to independent candidacy also serves to revitalize his run for presidential office.
RFK Jr.’s campaign is powered by his super PAC, which has received major backing from donors who previously exclusively supported Republican candidates, such as billionaire megadonor Timothy Mellon and entrepreneur Patrick Byrne. RFK Jr.’s atypical bid for the Democratic nomination was paradoxically underscored by major support from conservatives at large, who aligned with his vaccine-skeptical and anti-censorship platform and cheered him on in his battle to secure the nomination over President Joe Biden. Since going independent, RFK Jr.’s popularity among independents and an increasing base of conservatives has reversed the stance of Republicans, who have recognized his rising popularity could hurt former President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid more than Biden’s.
The still-early polling numbers of this election cycle could see RFK Jr. become one of the few independent candidates in American history to have an actual, if not dramatic, impact on a presidential election. In polls, RFK Jr. has garnered a plurality of support from independent and young voters in battleground states to grab an overall 22% of the vote; RFK Jr. could become the first independent candidate since Ross Perot in 1992 to qualify for Commission on Presidential Debates-sanctioned events.
The last independent candidate to poll above 15%, Perot’s bid for the presidency capitalized on dwindling support for then-incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Perot and Bush eventually lost the race to Bill Clinton. Although Perot’s campaign didn’t result in ultimate victory or sway the final outcome of the 1992 election, its legacy still haunts establishment politicians. Much like Trump capitalized on the weaknesses of both major parties in 2016, RFK Jr. may play a greater role in 2024 than just securing a Biden reelection.
Potentially standing in the way of such a scenario is 54-year-old U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last month. His appeal to pass the torch to a new generation of Democratic leaders is a timely one, with 71% of voters believing Biden is simply too old to be an effective president. Phillips’ campaign announcement drew significant displeasure from high-profile Democrats, including Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Walz and Biden himself. No matter how disparate, Phillips’ longshot bid speaks to the deepening fissures within the Democratic Party. While the party outwardly maintains its steadfast support for Biden, a growing number of ambitious Democrats are silently vying to fill the power vacuum left in Biden’s wake after leaving office.
Phillips’ challenge is backstopped by Biden’s dramatic decline in favorability, which has accelerated during his unrelenting support for Israel, a support that threatens to alienate voters key to his 2020 victory. Angst in the White House over these recent shortcomings is compounded with frustrations over the president’s blunders since the start of his term. Considering Biden’s failures in his current job, Democrats’ fears of a 2020 rematch are justified, especially as such a one-on-one scenario increasingly seems to favor Trump.
Like Biden, Trump is geared for an equally unencumbered path to his party’s nomination, even despite his campaign’s viability hinged on the outcome of a constellation of high-profile legal proceedings. Unlike Biden, however, Trump’s antics have received dramatically more opposition from within his own party. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid for the nomination initially received widespread conservative support, yet his chances have caved under the weight of his awkwardness on the national stage and lackluster performance against campaign rivals Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy have traded political blows and supporters over the past three Republican presidential debates, but none have even approached Trump’s insuperable 50-point lead achieved without even attending a single debate.
Despite these challenges, Trump crucially leads his archrival Biden by 4 percentage points, a gap that has widened considerably since a narrow 1-point margin in August. With Trump leading in five of six swing states Biden won in the 2020 election, an alternative for Biden may be exactly what Democratic voters need to avoid Trump’s return to the Oval Office. Even in a potential rematch, Americans still aren’t too excited about either candidate.
Enter RFK Jr.
Although he hails from Democratic Party royalty, his status as a relative political outsider and rejection of both “establishment” parties has led to on-the-fence voters flocking to his campaign. His non-starter beliefs and statements aside, RFK Jr.’s ideologically inconsistent platform fills a niche left mostly ignored by Biden and Trump. This ignorance is helped by the fact that the broad net he’s thrown across a wide range of policies doesn’t seem to have been cast with any particular political strategy in mind. RFK Jr. has also been repeatedly denied Secret Service protection by Biden, even after suffering from a potential assassination attempt in September.
Facing steep odds, the irregular and implausible nature of Phillips and RFK Jr. operate in tandem to produce campaigns that are heavily underestimated by the mainstream but simultaneously appeal broadly to voters fed up with the missteps of the current political establishment. Despite his longshot quest for election, RFK Jr.’s early polling strides may still manifest themselves in history in November, no matter if to the benefit of his own campaign or to the benefit of his opponents.
Maximilian Schenke is an Opinion Columnist who is passionate about international politics and how they affect us locally, but often writes about national politics as well. He loves receiving criticism or otherwise at email@example.com.