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Washington Wednesday: The independent candidate


WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: The independent candidate

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. caters to disaffected Republicans and Democrats with the new We the People Party

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks to supporters on Saturday. Associated Press/Photo by Richard Vogel

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 3rd of April, 2024.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

This week, Erin Burnett of CNN interviewed independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Asked who was the bigger threat to democracy, President Biden or former President Trump, Kennedy gave an answer she probably wasn’t expecting: Biden.

KENNEDY: Thirty-seven hours after he took the oath of office, he was censoring me, no president in the country has ever done that. The greatest threat to democracy is not somebody who questions election returns, but a president of the United States who will use the power of his office to force the social media companies to open a portal and give access to that portal to the FBI, CIA to censor his political critics.

Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans would rather have a candidate other than Trump and Biden…but is Kennedy the one to fill the gap?

From WORLD’s Washington Bureau, here’s reporter Carolina Lumetta.

CAROLINA LUMETTA: Amber Impellizzeri is a mom and homeschool co-op tutor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And like many Americans, she’s found herself politically homeless this year.

AMBER IMPELLIZZERI: I wanted to educate myself on the other options that were out there because I knew that I was not going to support Biden. And I wasn't thrilled about having Trump be my other option.

Then she found a third option in June, when she heard psychologist and podcaster Jordan Peterson interview Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the nephew of President John F. Kennedy.

IMPELLIZZERI: And I was like, “Wow, I really like this guy. He's talking about politics, and he's talking about them in a different way than what I'm used to hearing people talk about. He's not talking about them with the same vitriol. He's not talking about them with the same, you know, blame shifting.” It was refreshing.

LUMETTA: Kennedy ran as a Democrat until October, when he switched to independent, because the national party would not recognize candidates other than President Joe Biden. Kennedy’s platform priorities include environmentalism, small government, healthcare, and securing the border. That caught the attention of Cody Marks, an associate pastor at a Methodist church in North Carolina.

CODY MARKS: He wants to have a proactive agenda. He wants to actually take steps to solve problems. I even like the fact that he’s willing to change his mind, but not just because of some pressure. I think of the case, you know, where he went to the border and investigated it for himself, and then from there he shared where he had changed.

LUMETTA: The first hurdle for Kennedy has been simply getting onto ballots. Each state has different signature requirements for an independent candidate to be listed. So Kennedy founded a new party, We the People, to get around some of these requirements. Across the country, volunteers canvas street corners, front porches, and farmers markets to collect signatures and ask voters to allow the new party on the ballot. Marks is one of these volunteers.

MARKS: I’ve got a family member who is most likely going to support Trump, but said they would sign the petition. So it's actually, even in that case, it's been good for just promoting some good, healthy conversation.

LUMETTA: On Monday, the Kennedy campaign said it secured enough signatures to get on the ballot in North Carolina, though the state has yet to officially receive the documents. Right now, he is only on the ballot in Utah, but his campaign says he has qualified in seven other states: Nevada, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia.

As far as campaign funds go, Kennedy says he needs roughly $15 million dollars for the ballot access drive alone. According to the latest FEC filings, submitted on Monday, he has roughly $5 million in cash on hand, and the data shows his campaign has been spending more than it’s bringing in. Kennedy’s new running mate could help with this dilemma.

NICOLE SHANAHAN: There is only one candidate I have met for president who takes the chronic disease epidemic seriously, it is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And I will be his ally in making our nation healthy again. [Cheers]

LUMETTA: Nicole Shanahan is a wealthy Silicon Valley lawyer, and up until she became Kennedy’s vice president candidate, she was a Democrat. She renounced the party in her acceptance speech, but said she will take its best values and ideals with her. That could cost Kennedy some conservative support, particularly when it comes to abortion. Kennedy has said he supports “a woman’s right to choose” but then in October he indicated he might support a law protecting babies from abortion after 15-weeks of pregnancy. That mixed stance has not dissuaded Michigan voter Impellizzeri, though.

IMPELLIZZERI: He is pro-choice, but he is not your typical pro-choice candidate. When you hear Biden or Vice President Harris, you know, talk about abortion, they will a lot of times vilify the pro-life movement, and RFK, he doesn’t ever do that.

LUMETTA: Abortion isn’t Kennedy’s only policy stance that may divide voters. Elections expert Bernard Tamas says Kennedy lacks a galvanizing theme that can bring together disaffected Republicans and Democrats who would consider voting for a third party.

BERNARD TAMAS: So as an example, on the one hand, he is running on an anti-vax theme, basically the idea that that well, we can't trust scientists, and it's a conspiracy. But on the other hand, he's asking people to accept the word of scientists on climate change. So it’s unclear how exactly he’s going to build a campaign compared to the other Independent and third party campaigns that were relatively successful.

Kennedy is the highest polling independent candidate since Ross Perot ran in 1992. That year, Perot gained 19 percent of the popular vote but he did not win a single electoral vote. Current national averages of general election polls give Kennedy about 10 percent, but early election year polling is unpredictable.

Elections expert Tamas also specializes in third party candidates. He says it wouldn’t surprise him to see Kennedy pull support from both Trump and Biden without winning any states.

TAMAS: Third parties, even at their heyday, they were barely winning anything. Really their role is, could be called “spoiling with a purpose.” It's the idea is they bring up issues that the major parties are ignoring another way.

LUMETTA: John Aldrich is a professor at Duke University. He says Kennedy is tapping into a strong desire from voters for something new. But the country is likely not ready to elect an independent president just yet.

JOHN ALDRICH: Because Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much but they do agree that they don't want any third party - make it as hard as possible for a third party. This is the clearest example of duopolistic two-party politics dominating the construction of the electoral rules. Let us in, let nobody else in.

LUMETTA: In North Carolina, Marks says he will not vote for either Biden or Trump, even if Kennedy drops out. His state could be an important swing this year, where both parties are fighting for the 16 electoral votes in November.

MARKS: When I hear about some of that in the polls about the spoiler effect, I'm not going to fully rule it out. It can happen. But I would say most people, if they weren't going to vote for the candidate of their choice, would probably either stay home, write in somebody, hold their nose and vote another third party candidate or leave it blank.

LUMETTA: That’s it for today’s Washington Wednesday. Reporting for WORLD, I’m Carolina Lumetta.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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