Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has a history, and a present, of promoting wild conspiracy theories. His independent bid for the presidency is quixotic at best. And yet a new Quinnipiac poll has him getting an impressive 22% in a three-way contest with Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and with a narrow lead among independents.
This should be less encouraging to RFK than a warning sign to the major parties that they are courting disaster by nominating two candidates so unappealing that a solid bloc of voters, at first blush, would prefer someone, anyone really, with the last name Kennedy.
Democracy is usually the art of giving voters what they want. But, apparently, not in 2024.
Usually the obvious political considerations prevail in presidential politics.
It was pretty obvious that Joe Biden was a stronger general-election candidate in 2020 than Bernie Sanders, and lo and behold, Biden rose from the dead and won the Democratic nomination.
Sometimes passion, calculated risk-taking, delusion or stasis overwhelm the obvious, though. When this happens to one party — think of the Barry Goldwater or George McGovern nominations — it often suffers a debacle. But what if both parties succumb to these forces at same time?
Then, you get a clash of weakness where each party risks throwing away a winnable race through its insistence on a desperately flawed nominee.
The Republican reaction to the likely re-nomination of President Biden is, in effect, “We’ll see and raise your unpopular incumbent who looks like he could tip over at any moment with an unpopular former president who will likely be convicted of felonies next year.”
The Democratic reaction to the likely re-nomination of Donald Trump is, in effect, “We’ll see and raise your radioactive standard- bearer with a president who is trailing him in polls and who most people think can’t serve another four years.”
Both parties think they are going to win anyway. Even if they are right, their chances of victory would go up appreciably if they switched away from their current presumptive nominees.
A generic Democrat who is not festooned with Biden’s failures and weaknesses and is not in his or her 80s would almost certainly readily defeat Trump. (The unpopular Kamala Harris does not meet the definition of such a Democrat.)
A generic Republican who hasn’t spent years making him- or herself hateful to suburbanites, who isn’t wedded to ridiculous yarns about the 2020 election, and who isn’t in serious legal jeopardy in multiple jurisdictions would almost certainly readily beat Biden.
According to the latest USA Today/Suffolk poll, Trump leads Biden on who’s best to handle the economy, foreign affairs and the border, while surveys consistently find about three-quarters have doubts about Biden’s ability to serve another four years. And yet the mandarins of the Democratic Party believe he’s best suited to beating Trump.
On the other hand, despite all his troubles, Biden has a higher favorable rating (39% positive, 49% negative) than Trump (35% positive, 54% negative), according to a recent NBC News poll.
There’s no doubt that Trump could eke out a win against Biden, the way he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But why settle for hoping for a narrow win against such a debilitated incumbent?
With Trump, the GOP will be asking the middle of the electorate to conclude, “We can’t stand this guy and there’s nothing that can make us change our minds about him, but things are so bad in the country that perhaps we should give him a try again, anyway.”
Maybe that happens, but it isn’t the strongest grounds on which to contest an election.
The parties show no sign of doing something different, though. Benefiting from incumbency, Biden is all but unchallenged, and Trump continues to have an incredible grip on Republican voters.
So, both parties will probably roll the electoral dice unnecessarily next year, and try to give the voters what they don’t want, good and hard.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.