American politics owes much to the world of entertainment. Last Thursday night, half a thousand people gathered at a nightclub in Salt Lake City to hear Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — the controversial environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine activist, the third of late Sen. Bobby Kennedy’s 11 children. Kennedy chose Utah to kick off his campaign for the 2024 presidential race. Minutes before he took the microphone, Rufus McGee, a 41-year-old financier, was cracking open a beer with the attitude of one who expected to witness a spectacle that would cause him a mixture of morbidity and fascination. “Some of his policies are out of touch with reality. He strikes me as a guy who comes from outside the fringes and speaks without much concern for what people will think of him,” McGee says.
McGee arrived at Sky nightclub a political orphan. He is one of millions of voters who don’t know who to support in what could be round two between Joe Biden, 81, and Donald Trump, 77, in 2024. Both McGee and his girlfriend, Chris, a 45-year-old train engineer, are registered Republicans. It’s the only way for their voice to be heard in Utah, a state that has voted solidly for moderate Republicans since 1985. The couple has one certainty: they won’t vote for Trump. “There’s just no way,” says Christine, who describes herself as a liberal.
Against this backdrop, Kennedy, 69, has emerged as an attractive alternative. He has the surname of one of America’s most prominent political dynasties. However, experts on the Kennedy family believe that the does not represent the continuity of what the name symbolizes. A portion of his family members have turned their backs on his aspirations. “He seems more interested in capturing votes from those who believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy than in following in the footsteps of President Kennedy and his own father… I can’t help but think that if JFK or his brother RFK were still alive this candidacy would seem horrible to them, and they would urge him to drop out of the race,” Thomas Maier, author of The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings (2004), says by e-mail. “Ironically, the only way he can help the Democratic Party this year, the organization that was a vehicle for his family’s success, is to take votes away from Donald Trump from right-wing supporters addicted to conspiracy theories,” the author adds.
Amaryllis Fox, his campaign manager and daughter-in-law, says RFK Jr. leads in preferences among young people. He is especially strong among voters between 18 and 34 years old, 38% of whom approve of him, according to a Quinnipiac poll. This poll claims that Kennedy would win 22% of the vote if he were to run as an independent candidate in a three-way race (Biden would win 39% and Trump 36%). According to Fox, a former CIA agent who published in 2019 a book about her experience, his main appeal to this sector is his discourse on the corrupt relationship between the state and corporations.
But there’s more to his candidacy, as he sought to convey at the Utah event. For 60 minutes, the presidential hopeful jumped from topic to topic with a verbosity worthy of an unmoderated podcast. He began with the homeless crisis in San Francisco; the litigation he has brought against Monsanto; the crisis on the Mexican border; the billions of dollars he believes were wasted during the pandemic; the greed of investment firms BlackRock, Blackstone and Vanguard; and the abusive use of dynamite in mining in West Virginia, among other topics. In the audience, there were people with signs calling for “freedom for the middle class.” One shouted, “Give us our country back.”
Kennedy fired on all cylinders on issues that appeal to both the right and the left. To progressives, he promised environmentalism. To conservatives, less regulation and the closing of government watchdogs. Throughout his chaotic speech hovered a nostalgia for the America that is gone, the one his “uncle” helped forge, in reference to John F. Kennedy. “The American dream, the one you could achieve by working hard and playing by the rules, is a promise that can no longer be kept,” he said during his speech. “Faith in America has been lost,” he said at another point.
“What are we going to do about it?” someone shouted at him from the second floor. Kennedy, who has been campaigning for six months, seems to focus more on diagnosis than proposals. His team is determined to get him on the ballot in all 50 states across the country. This effort requires an investment of about $15 million, explains Amaryllis Fox. That is why Utah was chosen as the starting point. The state has the lowest requirement: he just has to get 1,600 signatures by Jan. 8. In states like California, the challenge is much greater, as he will need at least 1% of the signatures of registered voters, that is, around 219,000 people.
Vivian became a volunteer signature gatherer on Thursday. She is 32 years old and works at an online law firm. She didn’t vote in 2020, having lost faith in American politics when her favorite, progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, didn’t become the Democratic nominee. Nor does she plan to vote if Kennedy doesn’t make the ballot. “I’m not willing to choose between the lesser of two evils,” she says. That night she attended her first political rally and brought a friend with her. Both were impressed by the range of issues and how he stood up to giants like Monsanto and BlackRock. “I think he can defend us from everything they want to take away from us,” she says.
While there is optimism in the RFK Jr. campaign, election experts remain skeptical. A reputable group of political scientists at the University of Virginia doubts that the independent will maintain his popularity once the election date approaches. “Third-party candidates have more strength in the polls than in their performance. Voter antipathy toward the two major candidates can artificially boost numbers on paper,” writes Kyle Kondik. As an example, he cites Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein. In the polls heading into the 2016 election, they had 9% and 3% of the vote, respectively. Then, they received only 3.3% and 1.1%. But Kondik issues a warning: “Kennedy’s true support will only be revealed very late in the campaign, which makes the polls very difficult to decipher.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition