RFK Jr.’s coalition spans the political spectrum. That could have consequences in November

In Wisconsin, a 62-year-old tree farm owner who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and a 22-year-old who cast her first presidential vote for Joe Biden that same year share one major thing in common now – they’re both planning to vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. this fall.

And though neither of the Badger State residents has volunteered for a presidential campaign before, Dale Stenbroten and Katie Zimmerman spend their weekends trying to convince others to find the same inspiration in the independent candidate that they do.

Stenbroten told CNN he encourages his friends to look up videos of Kennedy and listen to what he has to say. “You’re not going to agree on everything he says, but the important issues are there, and he’s going to deal with them,” he said.

They are representative of Kennedy’s coalition of voters, which spans the political spectrum and has grown large enough to potentially alter the 2024 presidential race. These supporters – who say they’re drawn to Kennedy because of his stances on key issues and his rebuke of mainstream political parties – could have the greatest impact by tipping the balance in battleground states like Wisconsin, which has been decided by narrow margins in recent cycles.

Stenbroten, who describes himself as an “independent-leaning conservative,” didn’t vote for president in 2016, but he cast his ballot in 2020 for Trump, whom he considered the “better of two evils.”

Though the choice between the two major-party candidates remains the same this year, the Cedarburg resident doesn’t think Trump has the same appeal to independently minded voters this time around.

“​​He’s like a broken record, keeps saying the same thing over and over and over again, and it gets real old, real fast,” Stenbroten said, expressing fatigue with the former president’s fixation on the results of the 2020 election and his claims of political persecution in the legal system.

Stenbroten sees a refreshing level of authenticity in Kennedy.

“He brings a lot of integrity to the table. I feel that I can trust him. I can believe him,” he said.

For her part, Zimmerman, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discovered Kennedy on YouTube and was instantly inspired.

“He talked a lot about how he wanted to unite America and bring people together, instead of further divide them, and that’s something that means a lot to me, personally,” she said.

Zimmerman said she doesn’t see Biden, whom she supported in 2020, communicating with young voters like her in the same way that Kennedy does.

“I want to own a house in the future. … I haven’t necessarily heard Biden say things like that, that appeal to me as a person or as a voter,” she explained.

Marco Cordero, a 22-year-old from Bayview, also cast his first presidential vote for Biden but has since soured on the Democrat, citing inflation rates and conflicts in the Middle East.

“I think he focuses more on the middle class,” Cordero said of Kennedy, listing national debt, affordable housing and student loans as issues where the independent appeals to voters like him.

It’s unclear whether Kennedy’s presence in the race would have a greater impact on Biden or Trump, but polling data indicates Kennedy’s largest contingent of voters could be those who didn’t support either candidate in 2020. A New York Times/Siena College survey from May of registered voters in six key battleground states, including Wisconsin, found Kennedy earning 10% support, trailing Trump’s 40% and Biden’s 33% in a survey that also included Green Party candidate Jill Stein, independent Cornel West and former Libertarian Party candidate Lars Mapstead.

Of those who said they supported Kennedy, 19% said they didn’t vote in the 2020 presidential election, outpacing the 8% of Kennedy backers who said they voted for Biden and the 6% who said they voted for Trump.

Douglas DeNicola, a lifelong Democratic voter, thinks Kennedy is bridging the gap between the parties.

“This division that we have can only be solved if one of those two men are not president, because a Biden voter will never vote for Trump and a Trump voter will never vote for Biden,” he said.

On a dreary Saturday morning in Wauwatosa, the volunteer coordinator spent more than 20 minutes engaging an ardent supporter of the former president.

“You haven’t even given him a chance,” DeNicola told the man, urging him to check out Kennedy’s campaign website.

“No, because he doesn’t have a chance,” the Trump supporter replied.

Amid the politically charged discussion, a passerby shouted at DeNicola, “Fix the worms in your brain,” presumably referencing a medical abnormality Kennedy experienced in 2010 that he said was caused by a worm that entered his brain and then died.

“I’d rather vote for the worm,” DeNicola retorted.

DeNicola told CNN later he has a hard time grasping the current polarization of politics, which he thinks serves the interests of the powerful, rather than average Americans.

“I don’t understand how we continue to focus on these tiny things,” he said. “I mean, 95% of people want the same thing in life.”

While Kennedy’s outsider campaign faces long odds of winning the White House, his core supporters bristle at the attacks issued by both Democrats and Republicans that the independent is a spoiler without a clear path to victory. They’re realistic about the path ahead for Kennedy but believe the candidate who best represents their values deserves their vote.

“Chips will fall, you know, as they may and I’ll accept whatever happens,” Stenbroten said, before admitting it would be “disappointing” if Biden won critical Wisconsin due to Kennedy drawing a portion of Trump’s potential voter base.

Faced with the possibility of Trump winning the election due to Kennedy voters drawing support from Biden, Zimmerman asserted, “I’m not OK with that.”

“I think it might be a tight election for both of the two main parties. But again … I wouldn’t say that I would be OK with it,” she said.

Still, Zimmerman stands by her choice to back Kennedy, no matter the electoral consequences

“I wouldn’t necessarily feel any guilt because I was able to have a choice in who I wanted to vote for,” she said.

‘The fact that he’s different makes me want to get more invested’

Many Kennedy voters see his campaign as operating from the political center, bridging divides between Democrats and Republicans. A CNN national poll released in April found 60% of Kennedy supporters identify as politically moderate, with 28% identifying as conservative compared with 12% of those identifying as liberal.

A sizable contingent of Kennedy’s support comes from so-called double-haters – those holding an unfavorable view of both Biden and Trump, and those who are broadly frustrated with the two-party system and see Kennedy as an outsider who can shake up Washington.

Steve Constantine, who recently moved back to Wisconsin after residing in Texas for several years, said he sat out the past two presidential elections because he didn’t align with the choices before him.

The 36-year-old private chef said he’s likely to cast a ballot for Kennedy this fall because he’s attracted to the independent candidate’s “middle-ness.”

“I’m not super invested into politics, to be honest with you, but the fact that he’s different makes me want to get more invested,” Constantine said.

CNN spoke with many Kennedy supporters who said they first became aware of him through his criticism of policies enacted by the Trump and Biden administrations in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Some said they began following him through his anti-vaccine advocacy with Children’s Health Defense, a leading spreader of misinformation about vaccines. They dismissed criticisms of his stance on vaccines and Covid-era policies by arguing Kennedy is focused on improving the nation’s health.

Amy Funck, a 60-year old independent from Milwaukee and a subscriber to the Children’s Health Defense newsletter, said she first heard of Kennedy through the group.

Unlike her vote for Biden in 2020, she said she’ll be selecting Kennedy on her ballot enthusiastically this year.

“I think the president’s main job is to defend our individual civil liberties,” she said, a role that she thinks was “disregarded” under pandemic-era leadership.

Stenbroten said he shares Kennedy’s vaccine skepticism, though he doesn’t agree with all of the candidate’s views. But at the end of the day, he said the controversies surrounding the issue don’t concern him, because he doesn’t think it’s going to be top of mind for most voters.

“I don’t think they’re the existential problems that are most important to our country. Like Bobby says, you’re never going to agree on all the issues,” he said. “Whether you like vaccines or not, I don’t think that’s a deal breaker.”

DeNicola also dismissed the prospect that some Americans might be dissuaded from voting for Kennedy by his vaccine views, arguing, “If you’re a one-issue voter, it’s hard to pick a candidate.”

Kennedy has also attracted support by staking out a firm stance against US involvement in foreign wars and has repeatedly called for the US to discontinue aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. While he continues to back US support for Israel, some Kennedy voters view his anti-war rhetoric as a refreshing foreign policy approach compared with Biden and Trump.

Stenbroten points to a desire to end “forever wars” as a top issue drawing him to Kennedy, arguing that hawkish foreign policy, along with partisan infighting, contributes to a lack of freedom for everyday Americans.

“It’s got to stop. Otherwise, it’s just going to be, you know, an oligarchy. And we’re going to be in prison, not having the freedom and the choices that we should have in this country,” he said, explaining, “all this stuff leads to more corruption.”

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