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RFK's voters know they're not electing the next president. They're with him anyway

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s independent presidential campaign has drawn supporters who don't see themselves represented by Democrats or Republicans. Although he likely won't win the 2024 presidential election, who shows up to vote for him could help determine if President Biden or Former President Donald Trump do.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s independent presidential campaign has drawn supporters who don't see themselves represented by Democrats or Republicans. Although he likely won't win the 2024 presidential election, who shows up to vote for him could help determine if President Biden or Former President Donald Trump do.

NASHVILLE — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign is the political equivalent of a Rorschach test: it's open to interpretation, it aims to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people and its significance and meaning are squarely in the eyes of the beholder.

Kennedy’s independent bid is marketed as an alternative choice for those who don’t like President Biden, former President Donald Trump or the two-party system the country operates under.

Democrats and Republicans see the campaign as a threat that could siphon away enough of their voters in key swing states to tip the election to the other side.

But what about his supporters?

They’re people like Susan Parker, who traveled from Norman, Okla., to Nashville this month for a comedy show put on by the campaign at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

Despite never donating to a presidential candidate before, Parker maxed out campaign contributions to RFK, as he's often known, after listening to him speak on various podcasts and in other longform interviews where he shared his political philosophy.

“I feel like I've gotten to know him as a person, I see him think and everything,” she added. “So that's what excites me about him being in this race — it’s a third choice.”

Susan Parker came from Oklahoma to Tennessee to hear Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speak at a campaign comedy show. She donated the maximum amount to his independent presidential run and feels he is inspiring compared to President Biden and former President Donald Trump.
Stephen Fowler, NPR /
Susan Parker came from Oklahoma to Tennessee to hear Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak at a campaign comedy show. She donated the maximum amount to his independent presidential run and feels he is inspiring compared to President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Parker, clad in a shirt that reads “The Remedy is Kennedy 2024,” has historically voted for Republicans, including Trump, and says her choice is less about voting against Trump and Biden and more about enthusiasm for Kennedy himself.

“He inspires me personally, and I enjoy listening to him talk,” she said. “I have a little bit of a cringe factor when I listen to the other two major candidates.”

So many of RFK’s supporters mention his candidacy as an important alternative representing issues that are most important to them.

“I certainly align with him on his views on the health of America and his wanting to get us all more healthy,” she said. “I didn't know what his stances were on other political areas like the war and the middle class, but as I listened to him, I realized, no, he knows what he's doing. He knows what he's talking about. And I like what he's saying.”

What draws people to RFK?

She’s not alone. An overwhelming issue of importance to Kennedy supporters is health, and more specifically vaccines. It’s part of his campaign’s embrace of skepticism about the government’s role in, well, everything.

Brittany Ruiz from nearby Franklin, Tenn., said at the comedy show that she considered Kennedy a longtime family friend after years of work in opposition to vaccine mandates.

Ruiz said while she’s a fan of Trump, Kennedy is better on the things that matter to her, like tackling corruption, standing up to big pharmaceutical companies and rolling back government agencies’ purview in daily life.

“I would say that RFK Jr. has been strong on all the issues I feel like all of us want to be talked about or want to have addressed and want to have handled,” she said. “And so for me, my allegiance is more toward the fact that he is speaking on issues that no other candidate is talking about. That's why I'm a big fan.”

Many of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s campaign supporters say his views on improving health are important to them, and push back on claims that he is anti-vaccine.
Stephen Fowler, NPR /
Many of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s campaign supporters say his views on improving health are important to them, and push back on claims that he is anti-vaccine.

Outside of a recent rally in Austin, Tony Farmer told NPR that Kennedy’s focus on addressing the rise of chronic disease diagnoses is a crucial issue he feels Biden and Trump don’t adequately discuss.

“I like that RFK Jr.’s actually addressing the why: why our nation is so sick?” he said. “Because to me, nothing's more important than our health. Health is an economic issue. Our health is a social justice issue. Our health is an environmental issue. It's tied up into so many other things. To me, it's one of the most important things and it's not being talked about.”

It’s important to note Kennedy supporters interviewed by NPR push back against claims that he is anti-vaccine, or that they are either.

Farmer, for example, pointed to Kennedy’s record as an environmental lawyer — like cleaning up the Hudson River and suing Monsanto over cancer-causing chemicals — as something that gets overlooked by the talk of vaccines.

“This dude is a badass activist, and it seems like all people know about who haven't researched him is, like, he's anti-vax, he's anti-vaccine, he's anti-vaccine,” Farmer said. “And when you actually listen to him talk, he's not anti-vaccine. He wants safe vaccines.”

But in listening to Kennedy, or his vice presidential pick Nicole Shanahan, skepticism of vaccinations and conspiracies about their effects dominate campaign conversations more than mentions of Monsanto or global conflict, inflation or immigration.

And Kennedy's rise to political prominence cannot be seen without looking at his role fighting against current vaccine standards.

Like the nebulous inkblots of a Rorschach test, Kennedy’s supporters see the candidate’s activism and ideology differently than how they believe the mainstream media, Democrats and Republicans portray him.

“When I started hearing him talk and actually like listening to the words that he was saying,” Farmer said, “it's like, wow, what I've been hearing in the media about this guy isn't true. He's not crazy. He's not a kook!”

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks at the Libertarian National Convention on May 24, 2024 in Washington, DC. Kennedy is seeking qualification to be part of the first presidential debate currently scheduled on June 27 between Democrat President Biden and Republican, former President Donald Trump.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images / Getty Images North America
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Getty Images North America
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Libertarian National Convention on May 24 in Washington, D.C. Kennedy is seeking qualification to be part of the first presidential debate currently scheduled on June 27 between Democrat President Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump.

Distrust of the existing political system

While waiting for the RFK rally in Austin, Cathleen Yanco and Paul DeSantis shared why they support his campaign.

“Paul started following him first, and I was like, ‘I can't believe you're following him, you know he's anti-vax, he's this, he's that',” Yanco said. “And I did do the Google searches to try and find what I could on him, and it was all just the soundbites, the negative soundbites.”

After doing more research, including hearing more of Kennedy’s thoughts about things like freedom of speech, affordable housing and the influence of money in food, pharmaceuticals and other industries, Yanco said she apologized to DeSantis for initially criticizing his support for Kennedy.

“I do question everything I hear now,” she said. “I feel like my eyes have been opened since learning about Kennedy and looking a little more in depth, not just mainstream and not just Joe Rogan's podcast, not the popular stuff, but going a little more in depth. And I'm actually quite upset that I was fooled like that.”

Yanco voted for Democratic candidates in the past and said she is open minded to the platform of any candidate running, but said she does not currently trust what Democrats or Republicans say.

Her thoughts echo that of many RFK voters who say they feel like the two major parties don’t have a place for "normal people" who don’t have extreme views.

Tony Farmer, at that same Austin event, said his disconnect with the Democratic Party is over foreign policy.

“Remember when Democrats were taking George Bush to task for the wars in Iraq? What happened to the anti-war left? Where did it go?” he asked. “I feel like I’m staying still for the most part, and the Democratic Party is just moving further and further left.”

Farmer said Kennedy’s views and platform excite him and provide a new opportunity to buck a polarizing two-party system.

“It's at a point where I can't have an honest, open debate with someone and say something against Trump without someone being, ‘Well, you must love Biden then,’ or you can't say anything bad about Biden without someone saying, ‘You must love Trump, then,’” he said.

“It's such a mess.”

Don't call him a spoiler

The next president will likely not be Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He faces an uphill battle to get on the ballot in all 50 states, let alone to win significant share of the popular vote, but that’s not deterring those who have already committed to vote for him.

Susan Parker at the campaign comedy show in Nashville said RFK’s campaign is raising more awareness of the importance of who our politicians are and how they impact policy.

“There will be victory to be claimed, because I think a lot of people will take notice that didn't take notice before like myself,” she said. “And it's very exciting to finally be part of an election process.”

On that note, every Kennedy supporter interviewed by NPR at these two events did not think they were wasting their vote, despite no real path to victory, and despite the likelihood that his presence could affect who ultimately does win: Biden or Trump.

“I don't want to be told, ‘Well, if you support Kennedy, then that means Trump's going to get into office,’” Cathleen Yanco said. “Well, we need some changes. And unless we start somewhere, even if that means the potential for someone I detest getting into office… so be it.”

“A vote for Kennedy is a vote for Kennedy, he's not a spoiler for anyone,” Paul DeSantis added. “I mean, all we want is another voice in America, and he's it. We’re just tired of the division between the two parties."

The Kennedy-shaped inkblot that's still very much up to interpretation is how his voters will impact the 2024 presidential rematch between Trump and Biden.

These RFK voters have previously voted for Democrats and Republicans, vote both regularly and infrequently and cut across a demographic and ideological spectrum.

Both Democrats and Republicans share concerns that RFK’s independent bid will draw enough disaffected voters from their party to tilt the scales in an election that could once again be decided by narrow margins in a handful of states.

Who Kennedy’s voters could or would otherwise support is harder to gauge this far out from November, though there are signs that his independent campaign is focused on one side of the aisle.

An NPR review of campaign finance records show roughly 95% of RFK’s itemized donors have not given money to a presidential candidate since 2020. Of those who have, almost all contributions were to Republicans.

Kennedy and Shanahan’s prominent views around vaccine skepticism cut across the ideological spectrum, while conspiracies around the coronavirus are also more commonly found on the political right.

Last week, RFK spoke at the Libertarian Party’s national convention, attacking Trump over his response to the pandemic and unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for president.

Ultimately, RFK’s impact will come down to a few basic metrics: what states the campaign successfully gains ballot access in, how many of them are swing states, how strategically swing voters view their choices and how many RFK voters actually show up to the polls.

NPR's Ashley Lopez contributed reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.