RFK Jr. supporters were asked who they'd vote for if he was not running. Hear their responses.
03:28 - Source: CNN

Editor’s note: Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He is the author of the book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” and the co-host of the podcast “Politics in Question.” He also writes the newsletter “Undercurrent Events.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In a normal presidential election year, an anti-system third-party candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would not be polling at nearly 10% at this point in the cycle. But this is not a normal year.

Lee Drutman

This is an election year ripe for an anti-establishment candidate to create significant uncertainty — and potentially stir some even bigger changes to the US party system. With the announcement of his running mate, Silicon Valley attorney and entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan, Kennedy’s campaign will expand its ballot access.

Assuming President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump officially receive the party nominations they have now clinched, the stage is set for a general election that could have the lowest combined approval rating for major party candidates ever (or at least in the history of polling).

Both Biden and Trump have approval ratings stuck in the 40s, where they have been for years. It has echoes of 2016 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Trump broke records for the highest unfavorability ratings of any two candidates on Election Day.

On the surface, this double dislike seems puzzling: Shouldn’t one of the two parties have figured out how to elevate a more popular general election candidate? Perhaps. But something else is weird about this moment. In a December 2023 Gallup poll, not a single top US government official tested had a job approval rating over 50% — and Kennedy bucks this trend. Kennedy is the only presidential candidate with a net favorable rating.

It’s not just the candidates. Both major parties also have negative favorability ratings. And nearly three in 10 Americans (27%) now view both parties unfavorably — up from just 6% in 1994. (That mirrors the 26% who view both Trump and Biden unfavorably.) Americans overwhelmingly want more than two political parties. The share of Americans saying “a third major party is needed” hit a record high of 63% in Gallup polling last October. Young voters are especially eager for more choices.

And it’s not just the parties: Trust in institutions is low across the board. Gallup’s Average Confidence in Major US Institutions tracking hit a record low in 2023 — just 26%.

“The country is sitting atop a powder keg,” Kennedy said in October as he announced his independent candidacy for president. “Americans are angry at being left out, left behind, swindled, cheated and belittled by a smug elite that has rigged the system in its favor.” At such a political moment, it’s hardly surprising that a grizzled scion of American political royalty might successfully play the hard-truth-telling anti-system avatar.

His message is an odd heterodox populism geared toward the unusual coalition of disaffecteds he has drawn into his orbit. It’s anti-corporate and anti-government (“clean out the corruption in Washington, DC, which funnels so much of our nation’s wealth to giant corporations and billionaires”), a kind of trust-no-one mood that mixes progressive economic policy ideas (“raise the minimum wage to $15,” “expand free child care to millions of families”) with anti-immigrant sentiments (“secure the border and bring illegal immigration to a halt, so that undocumented migrants won’t undercut wages”) and off-the-wall nutty-crunch (“establish addiction healing centers on organic farms across the country”). And, of course, a heavy dose of anti-vax conspiracy theories.

In many ways, Kennedy’s eccentric anti-system populism echoes Trump’s 2016 campaign. Like Trump 2016’s posturing, Kennedy 2024 also taps the under-represented populist quadrant of the electorate. Trump, however, has drifted into pure partisan warfare and narcissism, leaving a populist opening.

Because Kennedy’s support coalition is so unusual, and heavy with otherwise unlikely voters, his support numbers vary quite a bit across polls (it’s harder for pollsters to reach and properly weight his likely supporters). This especially makes his campaign a wildcard. He is not so much drawing from Democrats and Republicans as he is drawing from voters who are deeply dissatisfied with their choices.

Typically, third-party candidates fade as the election approaches, and traditional partisan loyalties kick back in. But in an election with so many “double-haters” who can’t stomach another term for either Trump or Biden, a third-party candidate with high name recognition and money has a meaningful shot at double-digit support.

If so, Kennedy might genuinely play spoiler — though for which candidate is not entirely clear yet. Who knows — he could even win a state like Alaska, where nearly a third of voters are genuinely independent (unlike most self-declared independents, who are actually reluctant partisans). But in a close race between the two unpopular frontrunners, Kennedy will almost certainly be a chaos factor.

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Historically, relevant third-party presidential candidacies have often presaged or corresponded to political realignments by raising cross-cutting issues that one party later adopted. For example, in 1892, populist James Weaver won five states, foreshadowing the populist turn in the Democratic Party in 1896. In 1968, independent George Wallace won five states and 13.5% of the vote, anticipating Republicans’ “Southern strategy” and a racial realignment.

If Kennedy’s 2024 cross-cutting issue is system distrust, then perhaps the uncertain chaos of his campaign could bring reform. In many ways, his surprising success is a direct product of what I’ve called the two-party doom loop — the escalating binary high-stakes existential angst-ridden conflict that turned us against each other in a war of all against all — steadily undermining the shared faith and legitimacy of our electoral processes, and polarized and shattered trust in our political institutions. Kennedy — whose campaign is in many respects a product of this doom loop — is a deeply flawed messenger for change.

The rigidity of the two-party system is on full display in its two old, unpopular standard-bearers this year. But the flip side of rigidity is brittleness. Kennedy’s odd coalition potentially sits at the balance of power, exposing that brittleness. Perhaps the uncertainty of 2024 presages a new realignment around a new era of political reform. One can only hope.