How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Could Doom Joe Biden

Across the street from the famed Mexican marketplace on Los Angeles’ Olvera Street, with steaming tacos and an all-female mariachi band playing the renowned “Cielito Lindo” for the crowd on Cesar Chavez Day, the event had all the trappings of a Democratic candidate’s GOTV rally. But with a bishop, a former Border Patrol supervisor and an anti-vaccine mandate Latino sheriff speaking as well, it could have just as easily been a Republican rally.

Neither was true. Saturday marked third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s relaunch of “Viva Kennedy,” his Hispanic outreach program that harkens back to the first ever Latino vote campaign launched by Kennedy’s uncle, John F. Kennedy, during the 1960 presidential race.

To date, Kennedy is officially on the November ballot in just one state: Utah. But his campaign and an allied super PAC, American Values 2024, announced in the last month they have collected more than enough signatures to make the ballot in the critical Southwestern battlegrounds of Arizona and Nevada, where roughly one in five voters are Latino.

Those signatures are still subject to challenge, but if Kennedy does appear on the ballot, it could create dire complications for the Biden campaign. Latino Democrats are now taking the threat of Kennedy’s campaign deadly seriously after national and state leaders were briefed on a previously unreported poll in mid-February by Democratic group Equis Research, which showed Kennedy performing surprisingly well among Latino voters in a dozen battleground states, effectively splintering Biden’s Hispanic coalition from 2020, when he garnered 59 percent Hispanic support.

Kennedy’s popularity appears to be a function of name recognition and a general lack of enthusiasm for President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, not to mention voters brushing their views onto the somewhat empty canvas of his candidacy. The poll of 2,010 registered Latino voters found Kennedy winning one in five young Latino voters, and also reported him capturing a sizable 17 percent Latino support in Arizona and an even more robust 21 percent in Nevada— the highest number among the battleground states polled. The drag on Biden’s Latino support was so great in the survey that Trump was winning among Hispanics overall in 12 battleground states, 41 percent to Biden’s 34 percent.

If those numbers held in November, it would represent a seismic break in the Democratic coalition and a remaking of the electoral map, leading Democrats to likely lose Nevada and Arizona. In the wake of Trump’s 2020 gains with Hispanics from South Florida to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, and even in parts of New Jersey and California, Democrats could still rest easy because the entire Southwest held. But if Nevada and Arizona fall to Trump as a result of erosion in the Latino vote, it would mean Biden is likely suffering similar losses across the country, presaging an election loss.

“Kennedy is a golden name in Democratic politics and any support he derives comes almost totally at the expense of Biden,” Fernand Amandi, Obama’s Hispanic pollster for both of his campaigns, told POLITICO Magazine.

It’s hard to overstate just how small Biden’s margin for error is in either Arizona or Nevada. In 2020, when Biden became the first Democrat to turn Arizona blue since Bill Clinton in 1996, he won the state by less than 11,000 votes. In neighboring Nevada, his cushion was 34,000 votes, just 2.4 percentage points, and the state has continued to move toward Republicans since. The GOP knocked off Steve Sisolak in the midterms — the only incumbent Democratic governor to lose in 2022 — and came within 8,000 votes of doing the same to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator.

Nationally, those close to the Biden campaign wave away Kennedy’s possible impact and say they don’t believe the 70-year-old former environmental lawyer and son of former New York Democratic Sen. Robert Kennedy will get more than 1 percent of the vote. Yet even if he doesn’t, that’s still enough to alter the outcome — using the 2020 vote totals, 1 percent would still triple Biden’s winning margin four years ago.

“It’s a big threat to them if Kennedy gets on the ballot in these two states. He would be pulling more from Biden,” said Mike Noble, the founder of Arizona-based polling firm Noble Predictive Insights, which does polling in both states. “That road to 270 [Electoral College votes] runs through the Southwest, and for them to dismiss him is silly.”

A disproportionately younger Latino electorate made its presence felt in 2020, and the Brookings Institution later identified Nevada and Arizona — where young Latinos make up 40 percent of all newly eligible voters — as swing states “where Latino youth participation in the 2020 election was decisive.”

But while Latinos were largely responsible for Biden sweeping the Southwest four years ago, the 2024 election has been marked by an encroaching sense of fear among Democrats due to Biden’s lack of popularity and enduring soft support among Hispanics thus far.

As Latinos window shop for November, some are finding Kennedy. Active Facebook groups have sprung up in support of the Democrat-turned-independent, some led by campaign staff, others organically, with two top national groups having a combined 31,000 members. Smaller state groups have popped up too in Arizona and Nevada, where they discuss topics like Kennedy’s vice presidential pick, Silicon Valley attorney and entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan, and ballot access strategy.

Several of Kennedy’s young Latino supporters in these groups seemed less driven by a family legacy forged in the 1960s, and more by a feeling of being lost in a two-party system they don’t see serving them, particularly around health care.

A former Obama voter, Ismael Brandon Hernandez is a 29-year-old, Mexican American Army veteran who lives in Peoria, Arizona. He left the military in 2017 after four years, with a traumatic brain injury, and has since had two failed back surgeries. He’s had a bad experience with the Veteran Affairs hospital system and is frustrated by how expensive his parent’s medical bills are, which means Obamacare also draws his ire. In his estimation, Trump’s tax law made the VA even worse.

Kennedy’s call to revamp health care in America towards chronic diseases and to make Americans healthier in general gives Hernandez hope.

“He encourages me to vote for him and makes me so interested and more serious about my country,” he said. “I’ve abandoned the state of our current democracy, I don’t support Republicans or Democrats, I’m all for independents.”

There’s no mistaking another source of support for Kennedy, the kind that can be a benefit to newcomers to the spotlight of the national political stage. Like Obama in 2008, or even Trump in 2016, voters can sometimes stamp their own stances and hopes and dreams onto candidates whose images are not quite filled in yet.

Lexi Shay Gonzales, 27, who runs a construction cleaning company and a production company, and lives in East Mesa, Arizona, said she believed that with his environmental record, Kennedy could help solve her state’s water issues.

But when asked about his ideas for fixing water issues in Arizona in an interview with POLITICO Magazine, however, Kennedy simply said it was an issue he’d “love to hear any suggestions with.”

“In my head, I think he could be the next step to making America great again,” Gonzales said, adding that frustration over health care was a driver of her support of Kennedy.

There would appear to be a disconnect between Kennedy’s promises to promote America’s health while being staunchly anti-vaccine. But that isn’t an issue for Gonzales, who said she herself is “50/50” on vaccines, did not get vaccinated during the pandemic and believes some vaccines are needed, but others aren’t necessary.

The Biden campaign and White House allies contend that RFK Jr.’s numbers will never be better than they are now and say that as Latinos learn about him and his fringe positions — including his anti-vaccine views — they will no longer support him.

Matt Barreto, a pollster and consultant who has worked with the White House and the Biden campaign, said third-party support is already baked into the election calculus in swing states — meaning each previous election had third-party candidates who drew a very small percentage of support.

“He has an extremely low probability of getting more than 1 percent in any of these states on Election Day,” Barreto said. “Right now, he’s an idea, not an actual real candidate, and as the campaign progresses and he becomes a candidate, his numbers will go down.”

Barreto added that Kennedy “doesn’t have any stronger appeal with Latinos” than he has overall, or any connection with the Latino community “aside from the Kennedy name.”

Even so, Democrats — some driven by data they’re seeing like the Equis poll — are now acting as if they need Kennedy out of the picture to have a fighting chance against Trump in what is expected to be an exceptionally close election decided by a small universe of states.

In the wake of February’s Equis Research poll, the national Democratic group Latino Victory Fund told POLITICO Magazine it plans to raise “millions of dollars” for a public education campaign that says “a third-party vote is a vote for Trump.”

Sindy Benavides, the group’s president and CEO, said it is still having internal discussions on what direction the effort will take, with the group said to be conducting polling and focus groups to decide if Kennedy is enough of a threat to warrant being explicitly named in the campaign.

The DNC, which brought on muscle to deal with the RFK Jr. challenge, said spring is always a third-party candidate’s high-water mark, and there’s a reason one of Trump’s top donors — Timothy Mellon — has thus far given Kennedy’s allied super PAC $15 million. It also similarly called Kennedy a “spoiler” candidate in a Spanish-language ad in a major Hispanic outlet, La Opinión, which was sold at Union Hall where the Viva Kennedy event was held on Saturday.

“If Kennedy makes it on the ballot in these states — and that’s a big if — we’re going to make sure voters know how extreme his policies are and that MAGA megadonors are bankrolling his spoiler campaign to be a stalking horse for Donald Trump,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist consulting for the DNC.

Noah Herrera, a 55-year-old in the Las Vegas real estate industry, is the kind of voter Democrats worry about losing to Kennedy. A 2020 Biden supporter, he is now the vice chair of the Coalition of Independent Nevadans, a nonpartisan group designed to provide a neutral platform to nonpartisan voters to participate in the political process. He said he voted for Obama and Trump before Biden but is now open to Kennedy’s candidacy.

“My father came as an illegal alien and was deported two times before coming back legally. I could be a Kennedy Democrat or a Reagan Republican,” he said. “I’m a guy in the middle, I own businesses, pay taxes, am socially responsible and fiscally conservative.”

The fanfare surrounding the relaunch of Viva Kennedy, the effort conceived by his uncle in the 1960 campaign to activate Mexican American voters, is a testament to Kennedy’s intent to reach out to disaffected Latino voters.

The Latino engagement effort formally launched on March 30, and it drew heavily on the memory of Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993. Kennedy’s Spanish-language website was unveiled one day before the birthday of the iconic United Farm Workers labor leader who had a friendship and unique political alliance with the candidate’s father, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy Jr. recalled his own friendship with Chavez, their work together on fighting pesticides, and serving as a pallbearer at Chavez’s funeral.

“We’re going to campaign very aggressively for the Latino vote,” he said in the POLITICO Magazine interview. “I have a long history as an advocate of Latino issues and on environmental justice issues.”

Susie Garcia, the director of Las Colibrí, an all-female mariachi ensemble that specializes in educational programming and performed at the Viva Kennedy launch, exemplified how more than half a century later, the Kennedy family history with Chavez still has allure.

“The draw for us is Cesar Chavez, knowing the Kennedys were close to Chavez and supportive of each other,” she said.

“An event like this is promoting positivity and strength in our community,” she continued, adding that the Kennedy campaign explained to her that the event was also for voter registration. “We’re Mexican American, we have Mexican roots, but we’re American. Knowing American history, we’re proud to be considered, it’s a chance for our voices to literally be heard. If Kennedy, or any political party, is putting Mexican culture on a platform to secure that vote, we’re supportive.”

Yet anger from the Chavez family boiled over ahead of the event, rooted in resentment of Kennedy’s efforts to tie his campaign to the late labor leader. Chavez family members endorsed Biden on the eve of the Viva Kennedy launch in an attempt to diminish the event, in part because they believe Chavez had far different views on immigration than Kennedy.

The candidate insists otherwise.

“Where I am with immigration is exactly where Cesar Chavez was,” Kennedy told POLITICO Magazine. “Making sure immigrants who came across were legal — he saw illegal immigration as a big issue in the last decade of his life.”

Andres Chavez, executive director of the National Chavez Center, the arm of the Cesar Chavez Foundation dedicated to preserving and educating people on his grandfather’s legacy, said his family believes Kennedy is just “wrong” when it comes to Chavez.

“He’s wrong on issues of the vaccine and has it wrong on my tata Cesar’s legacy,” Chavez said. “We can say with full confidence that my tata Cesar would not vote for Kennedy Jr. after Latinos and farm workers bore the brunt of Covid.”

Andres Chavez noted that while Trump and Kennedy were spreading lies and misinformation about vaccines, he worked at a vaccine immunization clinic in 2021 at Forty Acres, the home of the farm worker movement, where First Lady Jill Biden handed out immunization cards to farm workers, and California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Worker movement, made appearances.

In a brushback statement to Kennedy, the UFW made it clear that it is no longer in lockstep with its one-time ally.

“The United Farm Workers will always appreciate the support, friendship and leadership that generations of the Kennedy family have offered the farm worker movement,” spokesperson Antonio De Loera-Brust said. “The UFW proudly endorses President Biden for re-election in 2024. The president has consistently fought for farm worker rights, including by ensuring farm workers had equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine.”

In Nevada, the alarm bells have not yet started ringing over the threat posed by Kennedy’s candidacy. The influential Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the state powerhouse that knows how to win elections behind working-class room cleaners and cooks going door-to-door, said not only are they unaware of Kennedy’s presence in the state, they also aren’t worried because it’s still early in the campaign.

The union is fresh off winning a contract fight that averted a massive strike and delivered a nearly 30 percent salary increase in its contract, with workers who were making $28 an hour now set to make $37. The union also secured concessions on technology use and AI protections, as well as workload reductions, and daily room cleaning requirements, which they say was won with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris behind them the entire way. Harris, who has emerged as a key surrogate for the Biden campaign to Latino voters, joined the union at their Las Vegas hall to celebrate on Jan. 3.

Asked about the prospect of attacking Kennedy on their behalf, Ted Pappageorge, the union’s leader, stressed that the election will be between Trump and Biden, and what’s on the minds of working-class voters. But the union noted it is open to modifying its approach should Kennedy become a problem in its eyes.

The Biden campaign’s efforts are already underway, with a mix of old and new strategies, led by campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez, herself the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez.

The campaign spent resources on Spanglish ads, based on research and findings that it resonates more with younger Latinos. A new $30 million, six-week paid media investment for the spring will target Hispanic media, radio and high-index Latino viewership streaming platforms, like Hulu. And the campaign has drawn from its most precious resource — the time of the president and vice president.

In recent weeks, Harris has been on Univision radio in Phoenix, accepted Voto Latino’s endorsement in Las Vegas the next day, and traveled to Puerto Rico. Biden made a swing through Nevada and Arizona on March 19, launching the campaign’s Latino outreach program, “Latinos Con Biden-Harris,” in person in Phoenix, ahead of a major Univision network interview at the White House Thursday.

Leo Murrieta, the Nevada director for Make the Road Action, a progressive activist group, has helped turn out Latino voters in Las Vegas for 16 years. He said he is particularly stung by Kennedy’s anti-vaccine stances, knowing “what Covid cost Latinos and immigrants, our gente, our barrios wiped clean by deaths and disease.”

“This white, privileged fool is talking about vaccines killing people — no, the virus killed people,” he said.

Still, he stressed, Biden must understand that in Nevada, the “biggest pain point is affordability,” which ranges from the cost of housing to grocery bills, which in November ranked as the second-highest in the United States.

“Hardworking Latinos can’t afford staples like tortillas, leche y huevos,” he said.

Despite the work the Biden campaign is doing, he described a messaging void “where all we hear is folks from the right saying things are more expensive” on platforms like WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, Telemundo and Univision.

Kennedy’s opening, Murrieta said, exists because the Democratic Party “has not done a good enough job keeping Latino voters in the fold,” which has led them to drift towards independent candidates or nonpartisan options. While he stressed that it doesn’t mean they are moving to support Republicans, he said in Nevada they can also vote “none of the above.”

If Kennedy seriously engages Latinos, Biden will be put “in a tough spot,” Murrieta said.

“They need to step it up. They may dismiss this RFK lunatic, but he poses a threat, and they’re on thin ice.”

The uncertainty of the situation makes it dangerous, said Amandi, the former Obama pollster.

“Third-party candidates are Russian roulette politics,” he said. “You have no idea where the game is going to go, and it may end up killing you.”

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