The Agenda: Comment - Issue 173 - Magazine | Monocle

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You won’t get far in the US without a healthy amount of self-belief. So when Robert F Kennedy Jr introduced his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, a Silicon Valley stalwart and deep-pocketed donor to his campaign, as “the next vice-president of the United States”, he said it without a scrap of irony. Of course, Kennedy – nephew of jfk, son of Bobby, now running as an independent tearaway disowned by the Democrat establishment – probably knows he isn’t likely to be in the White House come January 2025. But that hasn’t stopped him whipping up a modest yet vocal movement of his own. To understand this forthcoming election, it’s essential to recognise the threat that third-party candidates such as rfk Jr pose to the two main parties and why some Americans are looking for another way.

I was in Oakland, California, to see Kennedy announce his “Veep”, and the crowd of flag-waving supporters were surprisingly normal for a candidate who has made anti-vax and conspiratorial waffle his stump. Ben, a former Democrat voter turned “mega-donor” to the Kennedy campaign, has had dinner with rfk Jr. “I’ve seen how the country has been run over the past four years and I don’t think it is being managed in the interest of the people or the international community,” he told me. “I will vote for Mr Kennedy.” Jessy had never been to a political rally before and, incredibly, believes Kennedy is a centrist voice. She fiercely dismissed any suggestion that her candidate peddles in conspiracy theories. “He just wants more truth, more transparency,” she said. 


Kennedy’s campaign is tapping into a distrust of media and official narratives that has seeped into so much American discourse. It is also the case that many voters feel turned off by both Trump and Biden (so-called “double- haters”) and might be seeing what they want to see in the outliers. One political consultant who has spent time around Kennedy tells me that while he may be disconnected from reality, you can’t underestimate the enduring brand power of his surname. That nostalgia was on display in Oakland. “Neither my father nor my uncle would recognise the version of America we have today,” came Kennedy’s raspy voice over a video showing scenes of homeless encampments in Los Angeles. Yet there was old-fashioned US optimism in there too: “[Americans] are ready to unite to rebuild this country.”

Appeals to emotion might be basic tactics but compare that message with Donald Trump’s, who warns of a “bloodbath” if he loses in 2024, or Joe Biden, who says that his opponent is an existential threat to democracy. “People want to vote for something, not just against something,” Lindsay Vermeyen, a pollster for the Benenson Strategy Group, which advised the successful Obama campaign, told me. The campaigns of today’s two mainstream parties are a far cry from anything like “Yes, we can”. 

Vermeyen is unsure whether many of those currently waving the flag for third-party candidates will ultimately come out to vote on election day. But the Democrats have been stung before – not least in 2000 when analysts say that votes for the seemingly distant Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, ultimately swung it in favour of George W Bush – so the party isn’t taking any chances. The Democratic National Committee has set up a dedicated task force of strategists to challenge third-party candidates, with much of the focus currently on messaging that the Kennedy campaign has some of the same donors as Donald Trump. Meanwhile, there are legal challenges to keep Kennedy off the ballot in swing states. “If that happens, I would feel I’ve been failed as an American,” said one Californian voter as we left the event in Oakland. — L

Christopher Lord is Monocle’s US Editor.

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