Whose presidential bid does RFK Jr. hurt more — Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s?

Headshot of Robert F Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a third-party candidate who recently disaffiliated with the Democratic Party to become an independent, posted stronger-than-expected poll numbers. Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

The 2024 election season is shaping up to be anything but a routine encounter between incumbent and challenger — and for many reasons.  

Former President Donald Trump, who is facing 91 criminal charges in cases brought by the federal government and four different states, is ahead in five of six key battleground states, according to the latest polling by the New York Times.

The margins are thin, but President Joe Biden has been losing support across the board — most recently among Arab Americans in response to his administration’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

Additionally, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a third-party candidate who recently disaffiliated with the Democratic Party to become an independent, posted stronger-than-expected poll numbers, stealing support from both Biden and Trump in the swing states.

How might Kennedy disrupt the frontrunners’ chances this election cycle? If the latest polling is any indication of how the country is feeling in this moment — happening against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars; economic precarity at home; and a slew of criminal and civil legal legal hurdles facing Trump — then the coming election promises to be a topsy-turvy affair.

Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern, says it’s hard to tease out precisely what’s accounting for the success of third-party options, but it’s clear their presence is already having an impact. 

Beauchamp spoke to Northeastern Global News about what this latest polling data might mean in the coming months for both the Trump and Biden camps. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

There’s a lot to talk about here. What are your thoughts on these latest numbers? What do they mean for the “third-party” effect?

Everybody’s attention seemed to be drawn to the high number of voters who said they were planning to vote for Kennedy Jr. or [Cornel] West — or both. I don’t think anybody truly believes that anything close to those percentages will be reflected on Election Day. But even with that caveat, I think it’s still larger than what most political scientists and election analysts expected. So now everyone is running around looking for context to explain it. (A side note: there are reports that the Biden administration, or some factions within it, are worried by this data; although one doesn’t know whether to believe such things.)

Headshot of Nicholas Beauchamp outside wearing a blue button down shirt.
Northeastern Assistant Professor of Political Science Nicholas Beauchamp. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

For me, it was interesting to look at the cross-tabulations to try and see where the shifts were happening — or, at least, to try to understand which demographic groups were expressing interest in the third-party candidates. As everybody talked about, the nice thing about that poll is they did almost all of the combinations. But an important thing to note is that this is just the battleground states, not the U.S. as a whole. That means the percentages really are less representative than the changes in percent; although people were also interested in the fact that a lot of these battleground states had Trump doing better than expected. 

In the aggregate, they had Trump up by one point. When Kennedy came in — and this is what many people were shocked by — he had 22% of voters saying they would vote for him. Kennedy drew from both Biden and Trump (Biden went down 8 [points], Trump went down 10 [points]); so the gap between Biden and Trump increased a couple of points due to Kennedy. 

For my money, these are all within the margin of error. From my point of view, what this mainly says is he is drawing roughly equally from both of the candidates. But it probably played a role in why Kennedy left the Democratic primary and went into the general. I’m sure they had internal polling that showed that if they were available for Republican votes, then they would get a lot of Republican votes. Why not do that if you have the chance?

Are there any historical data we can draw from about where specifically third-party or independent candidates have the biggest influence? Is it the battleground states?

It’s a good question. As I recall, the battleground states are not the highest impact states in terms of these third-party candidates — they were kind of middle of the pack. What you would expect is that, in some ways, the swing states would be impacted the least by centrist candidates because the battleground states are by definition 50-50 — one or the other; so if you’re polling from the middle here, you’re not going to influence the boundaries as much. There might be more votes for the centrists, but it won’t affect the margins. 

When you think about Ross Perot, there were lots of arguments about whether he caused Bill Clinton to win in 1992. There’s still a little bit of disagreement there, but the main point is that it’s kind of hard to tell, because, like many centrist candidates, he kind of drew equally from both parts of the middle. That’s very characteristic of third-party candidates in part because the people in the center, particularly those who might vote for a third party tend to be more disengaged, low information voters. So to some degree, they’re voting a little bit more randomly than others.

Kennedy is drawing equally from both Biden and Trump even though liberals have branded him as this center-right figure. Do you agree with that characterization? If so, do you think he will draw more from Trump populism than, say, Biden disaffection?

Well, early on in the race there were accusations that he was drawing more from younger, disaffected, left-leaning Democrats. And a number of polls came out, and those polls had cross-tabs that showed that, in fact, he was drawing from older, whiter, more conservative Democrats. Then it was, OK, Kennedy is on the right flank of the Democratic Party, or closer to the middle, and that became the conventional wisdom, which is potentially corroborated by this poll. 

But my second thought is that this [New York Times] poll had cross-tabs by other demographics, and the thing that was quite striking was that both younger voters and non-white voters were expressing that they were in favor of either Kennedy or West. Some of these younger people are Democrats and some are Republicans, but it’s hard to tease this out with any degree of granularity. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.