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Where does RFK Jr. fit in the history of third-party candidates?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This is how former President Donald Trump referred to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last June, back when Kennedy was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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DONALD TRUMP: You know, he's a common-sense guy, and so am I. So whether you're conservative or liberal, common sense is common sense.

DETROW: Just hang in was the advice that he offered in that interview on "The Howie Carr Show." Now Kennedy is running as an independent, and Trump is talking about him a little differently. In a recent post on his Truth Social platform, Trump called him, quote, "a Democrat plant, a radical left liberal who's been put in place in order to help Crooked Joe Biden, the worst president in the history of the United States, get reelected." That's the end of the quote. And Trump is not the only one paying attention to RFK Jr.'s candidacy.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't want to become emotional, but what an incredible honor to have the support of the Kennedy family.

DETROW: That's President Joe Biden a few weeks ago at a campaign event in Philadelphia, touting the endorsement of more than a dozen members of the Kennedys. Though he didn't mention RFK Jr. by name, he namechecked his father as a political guiding light.

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BIDEN: The principles Bobby Kennedy embodied were principles taught by my grandparents and parents around our kitchen table. And that's not hyperbole. That's a fact.

DETROW: All of this attention from the major party candidates is one of several signs that RFK Jr.'s independent candidacy might have a real impact. It's early, but when pollsters include him in presidential surveys, he's consistently getting around 10% of the vote. And Kennedy is generating a lot of news coverage...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: RFK Jr. challenging Donald Trump to a one-on-one debate.

DETROW: ...Even if it isn't always positive.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Strange health news about presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. - what we know about a worm that he says got into his brain and ate part of his brain and then died.

DETROW: And, of course, he has one of the most storied names in American politics.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kennedy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kennedy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kennedy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kennedy.

DETROW: So for our Sunday cover story, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s campaign may be a long shot, but history suggests it could still be a big factor in this election. And we're going to start with Kennedy's winding road to presidential candidate, beginning in the '90s and 2000s, when he made a name for himself as an environmental lawyer. Here he is in an NPR story from 2001, leading an effort to sue industrial hog farms for air and water pollution.

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ROBERT F KENNEDY JR: I've been suing polluters for 16 years, and I can tell you they have lots of resources.

DETROW: In more recent years, he has promoted false claims about vaccines. During the COVID pandemic, he became a leading figure in the push against vaccine mandates.

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KENNEDY: The minute they hand you that vaccine passport, every right that you have is transformed into a privilege contingent upon your obedience to arbitrary government dictates. It will make you a slave.

DETROW: That's Kennedy at a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2022. He went on to invoke Anne Frank and suggested that modern public health measures were laying the groundwork for a totalitarian state more restrictive than Nazi Germany. As a candidate, Kennedy insists that he is not anti-vaccine. He laid out his priorities in a recent interview on MSNBC's "The Beat." It's a grab bag of good governance type reforms...

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KENNEDY: I'd stop the lying in government. The day I come into office, I'm going to issue an executive order that any government official that lies to the American public in conjunction with his federal duties will be dismissed.

DETROW: Also, health issues - like his promise that he would end America's, quote, "chronic disease epidemic," though it's not entirely clear how. Above all, Kennedy insists that he is not a spoiler.

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KENNEDY: A spoiler is somebody who cannot win, whose continued participation in the election will disrupt the expectations of somebody who can win. Well, I can win.

DETROW: But what does the history of independent and third-party candidates say about RFK Jr.'s chances? To talk about that, I caught up with two people who take a long view on the presidency. Barbara Perry is a presidential historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and has written several books about the Kennedys. Hey, Barbara.

BARBARA PERRY: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: And Bernard Tamas is an associate professor of political science at Valdosta State University in Georgia and author of "The Demise And Rebirth Of American Third Parties." Barbara, let me start with you. How would you describe this candidacy, RFK Jr.'s run for the White House? What would you say his appeal is right now to voters?

PERRY: His first appeal, Scott, is his name. And we always talk about name recognition for candidates. Do they have it or not? But he has one of the most important names of a political dynasty in this country, along with the Adamses and the Roosevelts and the Bushes. And for some, it's still a golden name. And there are some people who really dislike the Kennedys, so in that sense, it can be a handicap. But that's the first thing that I think most people think of when they hear of his candidacy.

DETROW: Bernard, there's a lot of other factors that are driving Kennedy's appeal with some voters, and we should mention that vaccine disinformation, vaccine skepticism is a big part of it. But you see that there's also just a lot of dissatisfaction with the major party candidates right now. How does this fit into what we know about major third-party runs in the past?

BERNARD TAMAS: Well, this is the type of moment where third parties actually tended to have been historically most successful in American politics, these moments where the two parties become very polarized, where there's this movement away from the center. And there's a lot of issues with the way that he's running. But in terms of picking a moment to run, this would be it.

DETROW: A lot of the Kennedy campaign so far has been much more personality driven. You know, when reporters have tried to press him and his campaign on what exactly they would do if he were elected, there's a lot of vague answers. Is that unusual or is that more along the lines of the norm when you look at successful higher-profile third-party presidential bids?

TAMAS: Oh, it's very much not the norm. I mean, the successful ones have used a strategy referred to as sting like a bee. So the idea of sting like a bee is you tap into that anger with some forms of galvanizing issue, something that really energizes them. And you use that to distinguish yourself from the major parties and to attack them and cause them pain. And the idea is to get the major parties to co-opt the issues that the third-party candidate is presenting.

And so once, like the bee, they sting, they have a tendency then to die, but the goal of actually influencing policy in America is achieved. And this we've seen repeatedly in American history. Now, if you take RFK's approach, what we're seeing is a group of issues that don't necessarily seem to be tapping into any particular group and almost seem self-contradictory. I mean, he is very much anti-science when it comes to vaccines but very much pro-science when it comes to climate change. And this is going to - I suspect going to be a real problem as he moves forward.

DETROW: Quick question for both of you before we shift gears a little bit. Like I said, Kennedy's polling at around 10% nationally if you look at a lot of recent polls. How surprised would you be if he was still at 10% in the polls come November?

TAMAS: Extremely. I could be wrong, but generally, it's a drop. Consider that Perot was the leading candidate in the summer of 1992, and then he ended with 19% of the vote - still amazingly good by modern standards. But there was that drop. So it always seems to drop, and so I would suspect, based on the historical precedent, that it is likely to drop in his case now as well.

DETROW: But we know - Barbara, we know that the last two presidential elections have been so close. This is such a partisan country that no matter what happens, I think we can expect this to be a race decided by a handful of points in a handful of states. Ralph Nader in 2000 is a very good example that you don't have to draw away that many votes to arguably affect the outcome of a presidential election.

PERRY: Oh, absolutely. It will only take one or two percentage points in some of these swing states, and in fact, in three of them in 2020, Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia, Biden won those by one percentage points or fewer. So in an individual state, particularly a swing state, as it was the swing state in 2000 with Bush and Gore that was decided by anywhere from three to 500 votes total - so it only can be a few hundred votes that could cause a third-party candidate to cause one of the two major party candidates to lose. And that could very well happen with someone like Robert Kennedy in the mix. It will depend on how many states, particularly how many swing states, on whose ballot he gets. And right now he's - as I see it, it's just Michigan. But he's hoping to get on North Carolina and Nevada, two more swing states. So even a few hundred votes could be the deciding factor, and he could represent them.

DETROW: It's been interesting to see both the Biden and Trump campaign - you know, the way that Trump initially was supportive of Kennedy thinking would hurt Biden more. And then suddenly Trump is critical of him. You've seen the Biden campaign really try to harness the Kennedy family to attack Kennedy. Curious what you both think right now about which major party RFK Jr. might be hurting more, given the mix of appeal here of anti-establishment, vaccines and nostalgia?

TAMAS: The thing with RFK's support on the progressive side is it - besides general dissatisfaction, it seems to be mostly driven by his last name. And - but he's taking, again, a - the anti-vaxxer position, which doesn't really work for progressives. He's avoiding the Gaza issue and has been very pro-Israel. It's unlikely that support there is going to sustain itself. But again, and I really want to emphasize this, there is no way to know at this point who he's going to harm more...

DETROW: Yeah.

TAMAS: ...Which is why both of their alarmed reaction actually makes sense.

DETROW: That was Bernard Tamas of Valdosta State University, author of "The Demise And Rebirth Of American Third Parties," as well as Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia, author of "Rose Kennedy: The Life And Times Of A Political Matriarch." Thanks to you both.

TAMAS: Thank you.

PERRY: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.