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How RFK Jr. could hurt Biden, Trump in 2024 election with independent bid

By Jeff Mason and Heather Timmons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Long-shot U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s likely independent bid for the White House may complicate the 2024 race by taking votes away from Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump in critical states, political analysts said.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, anti-vaccine activist, scion of the powerful political family and son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, is expected to announce in Philadelphia on Oct. 9 that he will drop his challenge to President Biden for the Democratic Party’s nomination, and run as an independent candidate instead.

The two-party system of Democrats and Republicans has dominated presidential politics for more than a century, but third party candidates have influenced the outcome in the past.

The success of Biden or Trump, the former president who is the frontrunner for his party’s 2024 nomination, could come down to thousands of voters in a handful of critical states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona. Independent voters, those not registered with either party, are likely to be a deciding factor in Arizona and others.

Kennedy’s deep-pocketed backers and famous name, combined with a lack of broad enthusiasm for Biden and Trump, could help him take votes from their respective sides.

“Our concern about all third parties is that Donald Trump’s support is limited – he’s well below 50% – but very stable,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of Third Way, a left-leaning political strategy firm. “Voters who would reluctantly pick Biden in a head-to-head with Trump might jump at the chance to vote for a Kennedy, even if they don’t know much about him.”

Some of Kennedy’s public positions align more with the Trump supporters who have embraced anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories than with Biden’s centrist and left-leaning base. Opinion polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight show Kennedy appeals more to Republicans than Democrats by a large margin.

Republican strategists said they see advantages and disadvantages to Kennedy’s presence in the race.

“It could certainly siphon some votes from Trump, but it will certainly hurt Biden much more,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who argued that Trump voters were more enthusiastic than Biden’s.

Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign declined to comment. Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Children’s Health Defense, a non-profit organization Kennedy founded, spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, including that vaccinated children died at a faster rate, Reuters Fact Check found.

Dozens of young children died of measles in American Samoa in 2019 after anti-vaccine activists, including Kennedy, spread misinformation about the vaccines’ safety in the island state, according to FactCheck.org and Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s vaccine education center.

Kennedy in July testimony to Congress said he has never been opposed to vaccines and never told the public to avoid them.

In July, White House officials joined a chorus of Democrats and medical professionals who criticized Kennedy for claiming in a video that COVID-19 was targeted to attack white and Black people and that Jewish and Chinese people are most immune.

Kennedy has also suggested anti-depressants cause school shootings, Wi-Fi radiation causes cancer and that the 2004 election that re-elected George W. Bush was stolen, according to FactCheck.org.

About 47% of Americans polled in September by Reuters/Ipsos said they were uninterested in getting the newest COVID-19 vaccine, with more than one-third of those saying they believed it was dangerous. Only 34% of Republicans said they would be interested in getting the updated vaccine, compared with 77% of Democrats.

HIGH FAVORABILITY, TRUMP DONOR

Kennedy has higher favorability ratings than either Trump or Biden, Reuters/Ipsos polling from September shows, with 51% of respondents having a favorable view of him compared to 45% for Biden and 40% for Trump. But Biden leads Kennedy by 50 points in opinion polls tracking the Democratic nomination race, according to an average of data by RealClearPolitics.

At 69, Kennedy might have an appeal to Americans looking for a younger candidate than Biden, 80, and Trump, 77. Some 86% of Americans said they believe the cutoff for serving as president should be age 75 or younger, Reuters/Ipsos polling last November showed.

Several Political Action Committees have already raised millions for Kennedy’s campaign, and he has the backing of popular right-leaning podcasters and some Hollywood stars. He is married to actor Cheryl Hines.

American Values 2024 has raised $9.8 million, according to its latest Federal Election Committee filing, including a $4.3 million donation from Gavin de Becker, a security consultant, and $5 million from Timothy Mellon. Mellon, an heir to the Mellon banking family, donated $20 million to Trump’s America First Action PAC in 2020, Open Secrets data show.

THIRD-PARTY SPOILER?

Kennedy would join academic Cornell West as a third-party candidate. West’s campaign manager, Peter Daou, welcomed Kennedy in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has flirted with running for president as a third-party candidate, and former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, who campaigned on the Democratic ticket in 2000 as former Vice President Al Gore’s running mate, is the founding chairman of No Labels, a group that could put up a 2024 presidential contender.

Biden, in an interview with ProPublica, suggested Lieberman’s group would help Trump.

“He has a democratic right to do it. There’s no reason not to do that. Now, it’s going to help the other guy. And he knows (that),” Biden said when asked about Lieberman. “That’s a political decision he’s making that I obviously think is a mistake.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Heather Timmons; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Grant McCool)