The RFK Jr. Strategy Clicks Into Focus

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What if everyone’s wrong? What if Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign is savvier, more organized, and more cunning than it’s been given credit for? This past weekend, Kennedy’s “We the People” party gamed an Iowa loophole to secure his spot on the state’s 2024 election ballot. Instead of spending months gathering thousands of signatures, Kennedy’s allies persuaded hundreds of voters to show up in the same place on the same day and partake in something akin to a potemkin political convention. The summit barely lasted two hours. It was a bold gambit, and it worked.

On Saturday in West Des Moines, Kennedy “accepted” his nascent party’s nomination for president, then spoke extemporaneously (no teleprompters, no printed remarks) inside the historic Val-Air Ballroom. Twenty years ago on this same stage, Howard Dean gripped the mic and emitted a guttural “YAHHHHHH!”—a gargling, alien howl that many believe doomed his 2004 campaign. Kennedy’s vibe was tamer, though his language crackled with a fiery, burn-it-down ethos. He assured the room that the most confounding spoiler campaign of the year would rage on, even if no one knows exactly where it will all lead.

Kennedy is officially on the ballot in Utah, and his team (and super PAC) says he has met the necessary qualifications in Nevada, Idaho, Nebraska, North Carolina, and New Hampshire, in addition to Iowa. Depending on whom you ask, he’s either making a mockery of America’s electoral process for his own ego and enrichment, or he’s righteously revealing the system’s fatal flaws through a prolonged, patriotic, chaotic protest. Perhaps he’s doing a bit of both.

Can voters trust him? Can anyone? At the lectern, Kennedy warned his followers against putting their faith in any government leader. He promised that, as president, he’d instruct members of the media to rediscover the journalistic virtue known as “fierce skepticism.” He also said this: “Don’t even believe me! You shouldn’t!”

This week marks one year since Kennedy launched his campaign, and he has settled into a comfortable groove: a flame-throwing extremist posing as a mellow unifier. Kennedy paints President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump as equally villainous leaders of equally villainous parties propping up a supremely villainous power system. He argues that he, the conspiratorial anti-vaxxer condemned by multiple members of his family, is the only sensible voice in this race. Kennedy deftly plays up his lineage, often deploying the phrase When my uncle was president. For virtually his entire life, like his uncle and father and dozens (hundreds?) of others with his surname, Kennedy was a staunch Democrat. Then, six months ago, standing outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he declared his “independence” from the DNC and the tyrannical political duopoly. Rather than challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination, he announced his intent to go it alone and “spoil” the election—for both sides.

Kennedy may condemn Trump and Biden equally, but these days he certainly sounds much more like Trump than Biden. In Iowa, he began his “acceptance speech” by telling the crowd that he had just participated in a backstage interview with ABC News. Right on cue, a member of the audience yelled “Fuck them!,” prompting Kennedy to flash a mischievous, Trumpian smile. He shared that ABC had asked him about a recent New York Times/Siena poll showing him at only 2 percent. This led to a rant against what he believed to be the rigged poll. To be fair, Kennedy may have had a bit of a point: Survey respondents weren’t automatically supplied Kennedy’s name, as they were Trump’s and Biden’s. That methodology may have hurt Kennedy and other third-party candidates, but it doesn’t constitute “rigged.” Still, to him, this was fresh evidence that the corrupt media are part of the crooked system he’s intent on demolishing.

In most polls, Kennedy hovers between 10 and 20 percent of support—notably high numbers for any third-party contender, though history suggests his numbers will shrink as Election Day nears. Tony Lyons, the iconoclastic book publisher who runs the pro-Kennedy American Values super PAC, recently told me that Kennedy’s pivot to independence led to a major increase in fundraising. His newly announced running mate, the Silicon Valley businesswoman Nicole Shanahan, will bring even more money to the operation.

Many people believe that Kennedy will ultimately draw more votes from Biden than from Trump in November. But the results will vary depending on the state. In Iowa, where Trump won in 2016 and 2020, I spoke with several attendees who identified as Republicans. Most of them were former Trump voters. A 63-year-old farmer named Howard Vlieger had driven four hours that morning to do his part to help get Kennedy on the ballot. (State regulations required the campaign to find at least 500 “eligible electors” from at least 25 of Iowa’s 99 counties; in the end, it was able to notch well over 600.) Around noon, I noticed Vlieger standing in the sun near the venue’s mid-century neon DANCING sign, clutching a large cardboard box. What’s inside? I asked. An assortment of GMO-free summer sausage from his family’s livestock, packed on ice—a gift for Kennedy. Vlieger was wearing a bolo tie engraved with a cross, much like the one on his belt buckle. He told me he’d been a registered Republican for most of his life. “I did vote for Trump in 2016,” he said. “I thought he was genuine, but he definitely proved me wrong.”

Another man, a 54-year-old named Dan (no last name given) wearing an American-flag bandanna, rolled up to the ballroom on his vintage red-white-and-blue Sears Roebuck bicycle with a Kennedy yard sign splayed across its handlebars. He, too, had been a lifelong Republican. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. He underwent chemotherapy but, as time passed, grew skeptical of conventional medicine. He had refused to get a COVID shot and told me uses only “God’s grass” to manage his pain. If he could go back in time, he told me, he probably wouldn’t agree to the chemo.

A young couple, Brady and Madison, 20 and 21 years old (no last names given), had driven a couple of hours southwest from Black Hawk County to get here. Brady told me that he works at Dollar General, and that this would be his first time voting. He said he had latched onto Kennedy after listening to him on several podcasts. “I would say that, like, even if some people think it’s a waste, it’s definitely better than not voting,” Brady said of his Kennedy support. “And definitely better than voting for the other two options.”

Kennedy isn’t courting MAGA world so much as slyly raising the flap of his circus tent and offering a safe space for some Trump folks. Much like Trump, Kennedy’s campaign merchandise has a coyness to it. By far the most popular shirt I saw Saturday read NO SHOES, NO SHIRT, NO SECRET SERVICE, with a black-and-white photo of Kennedy sitting barefoot at an airport gate. One item for sale was a camouflage trucker hat with Kennedy’s name in orange lettering, conspicuously similar to one of many current iterations of the MAGA hat. Kennedy described his campaign as an “idealistic journey to restore everything that we have in our country”—a tad ganglier than “Make America great again.” The official new slogan sounds like it was made by ChatGPT: “The future starts now.”

Beyond the obvious presence of many former and current Republicans, Kennedy’s “convention” featured perhaps the biggest cross-section of people I’ve ever witnessed at an Iowa event. I saw a blend of young people, old people, flat brims, sun brims, billowy blazers, Harley-Davidson shirts, earth tones, floral prints, tie-dye, work boots, and more. I overheard one woman admonish her fellow volunteer for drinking out of a plastic water bottle instead of a reusable aluminum container. I also saw attendees clutching cans of Miller Lite. (Cold beer is, and will always be, a bipartisan unifier.) Like MAGA, RFK Jr.–ism has become a real movement, a club, a place of belonging. A bit later in the afternoon, I ran into a Trump caucus captain whom I had spoken with at the former president’s pre-Christmas rally in Waterloo, Iowa. Roughly 1,000 people had now filed in to see Kennedy. He told me that only two candidates could draw these sort of numbers in Iowa: his guy, and this guy. He was here for the show.

Like Trump, Kennedy peppered call-and-response sections into his speech, giving the event the air of a church revival. And who owns all those pharmaceutical companies? Black Rock! He soon segued into an attack on processed foods. (The venue’s snack bar had Domino’s pizza on offer, and more than a few attendees were chowing slices.) He warned that we could soon see “more pandemics,” using his fingers to turn air quotes into scare quotes. In response, one audience member screamed “Plandemic!”—a reference to a movie packed with conspiracy theories that had gone viral in 2020. As Kennedy spoke, people in the crowd periodically raised their fists in emphatic support, no matter the topic.

“If you give me a sword and some ground to stand on, I will give you your country back,” Kennedy promised. It was the ultimate needle-thread. Not only did this statement sound Trump-esque, but the “sword” was perhaps a sly reference to Camelot—the nickname of his uncle’s White House.

When I interviewed Kennedy for a profile last spring, he was traveling with an extremely small crew anchored by his press secretary, Stefanie Spear. On Saturday, I spotted Spear hovering by the VIP section inside the ballroom. She looked tanned and rested—the opposite of someone who had just spent a year on a grueling presidential campaign. Everything was falling into place. Spear told me that the campaign was ahead of all of its milestones and that she was confident Kennedy’s name would appear on the ballot in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, both Democrats and Republicans have been trying to thwart Kennedy’s progress with legal challenges. Spear told me that the campaign had figured out some workarounds. The Iowa “one-day convention” was unique; in many states, her team is engaging in clock management: The campaign has the requisite signatures to land Kennedy on multiple state ballots right now, but it’s waiting until closer to the final deadlines to submit the paperwork. This way, the DNC and RNC will have less time to mount their legal oppositions.

Democrats are finally reckoning with the threat Kennedy poses to Biden’s reelection. The DNC recently hired operatives to take on third-party candidates, namely Kennedy. Meanwhile, Trump’s allies are reportedly planning to boost Kennedy (and other third-party candidates) in swing states. “The path to victory here is clearly maximizing the reach of these left-wing alternatives,” the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon recently told The New York Times.

Liberal voters who say they plan to abandon Biden on account of his support of Israel in its war in Gaza won’t necessarily find comfort in Kennedy, who falls to the right of the president on the issue. On Saturday, I spoke with an attendee named Priscilla Herrera, a transcendental-meditation instructor from Fairfield, Iowa. She wore a red Kennedy baseball hat and had brought along her three-month-old son. She told me she’d been a fan of Kennedy ever since watching him on The Joe Rogan Experience last year. “There are some policies that I don’t agree with,” she said. “And he may have lost a lot of people, a lot of younger people, when he didn’t speak out against what was happening in Palestine, the atrocities against the people in Gaza. And I get chills, because I was really upset about that, too,” she said. “But despite that, I think I’m still going to vote for him.”

Kennedy is no doubt counting on wooing more voters like her. Maybe they’ve heard him speak his truth on a podcast, maybe they think Biden’s too old for another term, or maybe they like that he seems like a crunchier version of Trump—an outspoken outsider, seemingly afraid of no one. Someone who appears willing to say almost anything and worry about the consequences later.


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