Will third-party candidates like RFK Jr. swing the presidential election? Here’s why it’s highly unlikely

RFK Jr speaking during a campaign event with a banner behind him that reads 'KENNEDY24 DECLARE YOUR INDEPENDENCE' in all caps.
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks during a campaign event at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced Monday that he was switching parties to run for president as an independent rather than as a Democrat. Progressive activist Cornel West is also running as an independent, after initially planning to run for president as a member of the People’s Party and then the Green Party. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, remains coy about a rumored third-party presidential run with the No Labels organization.

Will these candidacies swing the election?

William Crotty, professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern, says no.

“The American electorate is always angry, that’s not unusual. When the anger boils over into the third-party vote and influences the election, that is unusual, and that is pretty rare,” Crotty says. “It won’t happen this time.” 

Crotty says that the idea of a third party is kind of a misnomer, as there is no official “Third Party” under which all non-Democratic or non-Republican candidates run. Moreover, there is no consistent party ideology that non-Democratic or non-Republican candidates espouse.

In fact, he says that some people consider Donald Trump to be the most successful “third party” candidate in history. 

“He acts outside the Republican Party, and he is certainly not a Democrat,” Crotty notes.

But as for declared non-Democratic and non-Republican presidential candidates, Crotty says that the last time such a person definitely influenced the election was in 2000. In that election, the Green Party’s Ralph Nader siphoned off more than the 537 votes in Florida that Democrat Al Gore needed to win the presidency. George W. Bush was elected.

But Crotty says — despite Democrats’ and Republicans’ concerns — that such an outcome is unlikely this time. 

Analyzing the non-Democratic and non-Republican candidates this cycle, Crotty says that West has “no organization and likely no funding,” and “focuses on his democratic principles” rather than a campaign.

As for Kennedy, Crotty calls the political scion “a conspiratorialist — on everything he finds a conspiracy to explain it.” Crotty noted Kennedy’s theory that coronavirus vaccines were developed to control people via microchips; his belief that the CIA was involved in his uncle’s assassination, contrary to the Warren Commission’s Report; and espousing connections between antidepressants and school shootings and vaccines and autism, neither of which the scientific community has found evidence to support.

“It’s not likely he’ll appeal to Trump voters — just the Kennedy name itself would be likely to turn them off,” Crotty says. “It’s also unlikely he will appeal to Biden voters, given his erratic policy stances.”

As for Manchin — Crotty finds him “the most interesting of the candidates.” But it may be too early to tell. 

“He has expressed interest in the ‘No Label’ organization, whose importance as an electoral force has yet to be shown,” Crotty says. “Until that happens, it is something that really has no established identity, or therefore, particular appeal.”

Nevertheless, Crotty says that while he expects the 2024 election to be close, he predicts it will be solely between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think a non-Democratic or non-Republican candidate will impact the 2024 election,” Crotty says.

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.