Opinion: This Was the Week When the RFK Jr. Fantasy Went Bust

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

As we hurtle toward the first 2024 presidential debate on Thursday, it’s worth asking: What the hell happened to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.?

Back in April, an Emerson College poll had him at 21 percent, and a Fox News poll from around the same time had him at 19 percent. At that moment, it was easy to believe that he might build on that foundation, surpassing the 19 percent Ross Perot garnered in the 1992 presidential election. But since then, Kennedy’s campaign has stalled.

Most recently, Kennedy failed to qualify for the CNN debate, a development that could prove devastating and dispositive.

Contrarian Defenses of RFK Jr. Are Not Brave—They’re Boring

In terms of qualifying for the debate, Kennedy fell short on two counts. First, he failed to earn 15 percent in four approved national polls (although he came close, hitting the mark in three out of four polls). Second, he failed to appear on enough state ballots to be eligible to win the 270 Electoral College votes needed to be elected president.

Make no mistake, this missed opportunity is costly. More than 73 million people watched the first presidential debate in 2020, and there is no doubt that tens of millions will tune in on Thursday.

Presidential debates, themselves, are often catalysts to future success.

Imagine what would happen if RFK, Jr., had a strong moment (or at least seemed especially sharp when compared with Joe Biden and Donald Trump).

Appearing on the same platform with two former presidents might have allowed Americans to at least imagine Kennedy as president, an obvious prerequisite to winning.

In a nation full of “double-haters” where his two opponents are 81 and 78, respectively, it’s possible that Kennedy would have tapped into the lingering hunger for a third option.

Indeed, at different points during this campaign, Biden and Trump have worried that Kennedy might play spoiler and cost them the election.

The danger to Biden was that a candidate named Kennedy might peel off some Democrats who revere his famous uncle and father; Trump worried that an outsider, celebrity candidate who espoused vaccine skepticism might outflank him with conspiracy theorists—a key component of Trump’s base.

Today, when it comes to those worries, both candidates can breathe a sigh of relief.

Much of Kennedy’s early success was due to the near-universal name recognition that comes with being named Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

RFK Jr. Was Always a Crackpot, He Just Switched Political Tribes

Many people believed that Kennedy might use that leverage to break out the way Perot did when he appeared on stage at presidential debates and (despite dropping out of the race and then rejoining) garnered 19 percent of the vote.

But the more that people learned about RFK, Jr and his kooky ideas, the less they liked him. At least, increased exposure certainly has not boosted his popularity in the polls.

In addition to that problem, Team Biden has also shrewdly strangled Kennedy’s candidacy before it took off.

Consider, for example, Biden’s unprecedented move to call for a debate in June, which is months earlier than general election debates traditionally begin.

Among other positive externalities for Biden, this early date surprised Kennedy’s team, shortening the time they had to jump through all of the logistical hurdles required for an independent candidate to appear viable.

This was a brilliant, if devious, move.

“[Kennedy’s] problem is, for the debate, it’s so fast that it’s not set up for him to get on,” Bernard Tamas, a political science professor at Valdosta State University, told The Washington Post.

When it comes to appearing on state ballots, Kennedy is technically less than one-third of the way there; but this point deserves an asterisk. Officials in multiple states told The Washington Post that “…while Kennedy has either submitted petitions or been nominated by a minor party with ballot access, their certification process is not yet complete.”

And if pushing up the timing of the first debate wasn’t a big enough blow to Kennedy’s campaign, Biden-backed groups simultaneously worked to stymie his progress in qualifying for state ballots.

Why Biden Chose the Audience’s Right Side for Debate Night

Whether the two major campaigns and CNN in fact “colluded” to keep him out of the debate (as Kennedy alleges) is almost irrelevant. Barring some unforeseen development, the show will go on… without him.

And this will have consequences.

Nothing succeeds like success, and the opposite is also true; Kennedy’s failure to appear on stage will make it dramatically less likely that his campaign will get enough oxygen to catch fire.

The snarky bottom line? RFK, Jr, might be certifiable—but he’s not certified on enough ballots to be a serious contender in this election.

It’s Biden, Trump, or bust.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.