Why Robert Kennedy Jr.’s 2024 candidacy is a headache for Biden

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden might appear to be on cruise control until the heat of the 2024 general election. Nearly all of the nation’s top Democrats have lined up behind him, and the fight for the Republican nomination looks set to revolve around the former President Donald Trump’s legal troubles.

But he nonetheless faces his own version of a primary: a campaign to bolster support among skeptical Democratic voters.

As much as the president wants to look ahead to his impending fight against a Republican — he’s signaled he’s looking forward to a rematch with Trump — his Democratic allies warn he has important work to do with his own party’s voters. . He has yet to find ways to promote his accomplishments, appease wary voters his age and dismiss the Democratic challengers he has without any drama.

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Those upstart rivals include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist with a famous Democratic lineage who emerged with unexpected strength in early polls even as he spread conspiracy theories and dated right-wing figures and billionaire donors. Kennedy’s support from Democrats, as high as 20% in some surveys, serves as a bracing reminder of left-leaning voters’ healthy appetite for an alternative to Biden, and a stark symbol of the president’s weaknesses.

“Clearly there is a softness that may have been born out of concern about eligibility in 2024,” said Julián Castro, the former housing secretary who ran for president against Biden. in 2020. “While he has achieved a lot, there have been areas where I think people feel he hasn’t quite delivered on suffrage, reform of immigration, police reform and some aspects of the climate.

The White House is taking steps to strengthen Biden’s political hand, planning a summer of events promoting his legislative achievements. This week, he’s taking his first overnight campaign trip since announcing his re-election bid, a fundraiser in northern California. Last week, he accepted endorsements from the nation’s top environmental and labor organizations, which his campaign says will help him muster Democratic support.

This month, his campaign began running online ads highlighting his record. The Biden team even paid for a poster truck to drive around the Capitol and park in front of the Republican National Committee headquarters.

Still, some of Biden’s allies say they fear the president’s still fledgling campaign doesn’t fully grasp the depth of his problems with Democratic voters, who have consistently told pollsters they’d rather Biden not seek to be re-elected. Voters remain worried about inflation and its handling of the economy.

Some allies have even decided not to wait for the president’s team, launching independent voter education campaigns aimed at boosting his support in key places.

This month, Mayor Paige Cognetti of Scranton, Pa., and three other Pennsylvania mayors hopped in a rental van for a road trip across the state to promote projects funded by the Biden administration because ‘they feared voters wouldn’t know them.

They met in Harrisburg with Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis, a Democrat elected last year. Davis said Biden had done “great things” but worried voters wouldn’t know. He remembers campaigning at black barbershops in Philadelphia and hearing that voters felt the country was better off under Trump.

“They did a really bad job of telling Americans and Pennsylvanians what they did,” Davis said.

Kennedy’s popularity in the polls is largely due to his family, which includes three Democratic senators, a president and a host of other high-profile figures. A CNN poll late last month that showed Kennedy with 20% support against Biden found the number one reason voters loved him was because of the name Kennedy.

Polls have suggested that large numbers of Democratic voters are willing to tell pollsters they would take anyone over Biden. A Baltimore TV poll last week found that 41% of Maryland Democrats preferred their governor, Wes Moore, to Biden, even though Moore backs the president’s re-election.

Still, if Kennedy manages to maintain that level of support, he could embarrass Biden in the primaries.

“Could Bobby Kennedy have a spark? Maybe,” said Michael Novogratz, a billionaire Democratic donor who backed Biden in 2020 but pledged not to back any candidate over 72. “He’s alienated because of some of the anti-vax stances, but he’s a bright, articulate, eloquent, connected man, goes by the name of Kennedy and would attract a lot of Trump voters.”

The place where Kennedy could prove the biggest nuisance is New Hampshire, where the president has alienated key supporters by reshuffling the Democratic presidential nomination calendar to put the South Carolina primary first, ahead of the one. of Granite State.

New Hampshire Democrats fear Biden could skip their primary, which is likely to happen before the slot assigned to the state by the Democratic National Committee. They also worry that if Biden participates, enough independent voters angry at him for trying to elevate South Carolina might vote in protest for Kennedy handing the president an early but cosmetic primary defeat.

“If people feel hurt or disrespected, that’s a lot for the people of New Hampshire,” said Lou D’Allesandro, a Democratic state senator and longtime Biden ally, who warned that the rejection of his state by the president could lead to a victory for Kennedy there. .

A lawyer who rose to prominence in the 1990s as an environmental activist in New York, Kennedy, 69, has received a boost from conservative figures like Elon Musk, the Twitter owner who recently hosted him on a two-hour online audio chat, and David Sacks, a venture capitalist and supporter of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida who hosted a Kennedy fundraiser last week in California.

Kennedy has taken positions that put him ahead of virtually all Democratic voters. He opposed a ban on assault weapons, aired pro-Russian arguments about the war in Ukraine and suggested that US presidential campaigns were rigged. He has also long doctored conspiracy theories about vaccines.

A super PAC supporting Kennedy raised at least $5.7 million, according to John Gilmore, its executive director.

The Kennedy campaign is led by Dennis Kucinich, the left-leaning former congressman and mayor of Cleveland, who presented Kennedy’s cornucopia of right-wing views as proof that he is better positioned to win a general election. than Biden – who won in 2020 with strong support from Trump-skeptical moderate Republicans.

“Mr. Kennedy is the only person who has the qualities that can bring the unity that most Americans crave,” Kucinich said. “He speaks a language of conciliation and compassion.”

Other than fundraising efforts, the Biden campaign hasn’t had much public presence since its official rollout in April. Senior officials have been spending time in Wilmington, Delaware, in recent days buying office space for a campaign headquarters slated to open in July, according to two people familiar with the talks. The campaign, which has only a few employees on its payroll, is expected to add more staff once its offices open.

White House officials are planning an “invest in America” summer tour in which Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, their wives and Cabinet members will travel the country to promote the results of the legislation Biden signed to fund infrastructure and climate projects across the country.

They believe these trips will generate positive local media coverage that will be the first step — which will certainly be followed by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising from the Biden campaign and his allies — toward educating Biden-skeptical Democrats and wayward independent voters that Biden deserves. a second term.

“The more Americans learn about the President’s investment program in America, the more they support him,” said Ben LaBolt, White House communications director. “It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

It is not unprecedented for an incumbent president to face divisiveness in his party before being reappointed. In late 2010, Gallup found Hillary Clinton with 37% support in a hypothetical 2012 primary against President Barack Obama – though that was months before he announced his re-election bid.

In the 2012 Democratic presidential primaries, a criminal won 41% of the Democratic vote in West Virginia and a little-known lawyer 42% in Arkansas. Neither of these results cost Obama the path to nomination and re-election.

The White House, the Democratic National Committee and Biden’s re-election campaign have all refused to speak about Kennedy officially — a coordinated effort to avoid giving him oxygen.

Biden’s allies, however, are less reluctant.

“This campaign is a joke,” said Rep. Robert Garcia, D-California, whom Biden named to his campaign’s National Advisory Board last month. “He’s running in the wrong primary and has no chance of getting any support.”

Garcia added, “His views and worldview are dangerous.”

Still, Kennedy’s initial strength highlights Biden’s weaknesses that Republicans are eager to exploit.

A poll conducted in May for Way to Win, a Democratic-aligned group, found that only 22% of Latino voters and 33% of black voters were aware of “any specific thing” Biden had done in office to improve their life.

“There isn’t a single phrase that everyone can repeat that sticks,” said Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win. “What’s happening is the GOP is flooding the airwaves with a narrative of economic failure, and it’s starting to resonate.

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