Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has evolved in recent decades from a third party critic to a third-party presidential contender.

LAS VEGAS —  Independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the former Democrat now mounting a quixotic third-party presidential run, vowed that he will not bow out of the 2024 White House race even if polling data were to show him playing potential spoiler for President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump.

Twenty-four years ago, it was Kennedy who was sounding the alarm about the implications of one of the most consequential third-party presidential candidates in modern history: Ralph Nader. 

“There’s a political reality here, which is that his candidacy could draw enough votes in certain key states from Al Gore to give the entire election to George W. Bush,” Kennedy warned in an interview on NBC Nightly News just two months before the 2000 election.

The urging from Kennedy, a longtime environmental lawyer, to Nader to end his third-party effort was striking at the time because Kennedy had considered Nader a “mentor.”

Just a month earlier, CNN, according to a transcript, aired a sound bite of Kennedy in which he stated: “Ralph Nader is my friend. He’s my hero. He’s been a mentor to me, but his candidacy, I think, poses a huge threat to the environment in this country, and the reason for that, of course, is he could drain off votes in certain key states that would otherwise go to Al Gore, and in doing so, he could throw the election to George W. Bush.”

That November, Nader won just 3% of the national popular vote, but his support in razor-close New Hampshire and Florida was seen as a factor tipping both states — and the Electoral College — in favor of Bush over Gore.

Kennedy’s approach has evolved dramatically since then. Now, he is the third-party presidential candidate threatening to pull a major, unpredictable swath of votes from the potential Republican and Democratic nominees — and dismissing others’ suggestions that he should leave the race.

When asked in an interview with NBC News this week if he would end his campaign in a scenario polling that shows him drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from either Biden or Trump, Kennedy responded: “I’m not gonna bow out of the race. I think Americans should have a choice — that they shouldn’t be forced to choose the least of two evils. That they should be able to vote in a democracy, or for candidates that they like, that inspire them and who they want to run.”

But in 2000, he repeatedly fought Nader’s presidential effort. 

In an Aug. 10, 2000, New York Times op-ed, Kennedy wrote that “a vote for Mr. Nader is a vote for Mr. Bush.” He called Nader his “friend and hero,” but wrote that Nader was wrong when he “dismisses his spoiler role by arguing that there is little distinction between the major parties’ candidates.”

He continued: “While I admire Mr. Nader’s high-minded ideals, his suggestion that there is no difference between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush is irresponsible.”

Today, Kennedy’s run has concerned allies of both Biden and Trump.

For Democrats, the Kennedy family has been royalty in its party for more than 75 years, and the name still has cachet. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told NBC News that he voted for Biden, a longtime friend of the family, in the 2020 election. 

Currently, however, Kennedy, who left the Democratic Party last year, said that he believes he is attracting greater interest from Republicans. 

“I hope to draw equal numbers from both of them — I should be drawing numbers from both of them,” said Kennedy. “I think, at this point, I’m probably drawing more from President Trump.”

According to the most recent NBC News national poll, Kennedy is viewed positively by 28% of registered voters and negatively by 27%. But the numbers shift sharply by party: Republicans have more favorable views, 34%-16%, while Democrats are largely unfavorable, 18%-54%.

In an interview on Fox Business last weekend, Trump said about Kennedy: “I like him a lot.” He also blasted him, however, in a social media post, calling Kennedy “by far the most Radical Left person running for office, maybe ever!”

Polling data has so far not provided a clear picture of Kennedy’s impact when it comes to actual vote choice, in part because it’s still unclear where he’ll be on the ballot in November. He is actively collecting signatures across the country in order to qualify for the November ballot in different states. And different national surveys have shown Kennedy ranging from double-digit support down to the single digits, depending on how they asked the question.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the Democratic-aligned group ​Third Way, argued that third-party candidates will be “either irrelevant or spoilers.”

“Nader’s fundamental error was arguing there was no difference between Bush and Gore, and that’s essentially what RFK is arguing now … The difference between Trump and Biden is galactic, so the fact that [Kennedy has] changed so radically is truly stunning,” Bennett said.

The political organization No Labels also continues to gain ballot access for a presidential ticket, though the names of the potential candidates have yet to be determined by the group. The group has also come under scrutiny by Democrats for its possible spoiler risk.

The last third-party presidential candidate to win Electoral College votes was George Wallace, the Alabama governor who ran on the American Independent Party ticket in 1968 and garnered wins in five Deep South states. 

But Kennedy’s run could be the most serious third-party challenge since billionaire candidate Ross Perot in 1992 — and potentially as consequential as candidacies in not only 2000 but also 2016, when libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party contender Jill Stein won a share of Hillary Clinton-hesitant voters and helped consign her to defeat.

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