RFK Jr. is 2024’s X factor, new polls show, fueled by young voters and social media

With Story: BC-KENNEDY-POLLS-NYT -- In six swing states, nearly half of polled voters who said they were supporting Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said it was mostly a vote against President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump. Two charts showing presidential preference in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin at 9.6 x 3.5 -- cat=a

2024 JANUARY 18 CTY ROBERT F KENNEDY JR HSA PHOTO BY CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM Independent U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. held a voter rally at the Ko'olau Ballroom in Kaneohe on Thursday, January 18, 2024.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is polling stronger than any third-party candidate has in decades, pulling in roughly 10% of registered voters across the battleground states as he saps support from President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, a new series of polls has found.

The overall results in the Biden versus Trump contest were virtually unchanged when Kennedy was included in the polls conducted by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer. But beneath the surface of that seeming stability, the surveys revealed how Kennedy, powered by social media and younger voters, has emerged as an unpredictable X factor in what would otherwise be a 2020 rematch.


With less than six months until the election, the faction of the electorate giving Kennedy early support exposes some of the vulnerabilities inside the president’s Democratic coalition. Biden dropped all the way to 33% in a five-candidate race, an alarmingly low share of the vote for an incumbent president. The series of polls focused on what are expected to be the most contested states this fall: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Two of the groups that Kennedy performed strongest with in the surveys — voters younger than 30 (18% support) and Latinos (14%) — have traditionally been strong Democratic constituencies, unnerving some party strategists. Biden is also winning only half of Black voters in the multicandidate race.

Kennedy is clearly getting a boost from the rise of social media and the ability to communicate his message directly to voters. Among the roughly 1 in 6 voters who said they consumed most of their news from social media, Kennedy was getting 16% of the vote, nearly equal to Biden’s 18%.

Among crucial independent voters, Kennedy was pulling in 16% support. But his supporters say they are far less committed to him than backers of Biden or Trump, and less likely to vote at all.

“I would support him as kind of like a protest vote,” said Benjamin Sandoval, 21, a student at the University of Michigan who is originally from Ecuador and who described Biden as “weak” and Trump as a “bad man.”

Half of Kennedy’s supporters said they were voting chiefly for him, and nearly half said their support was mostly a vote against the other candidates.

Overall, Trump is leading by 6 percentage points in a one-on-one race with Biden. Trump was ahead by 7 points when Kennedy and three other third-party candidates were included. None of those three other candidates topped 1%.

Polling third-party candidates has notoriously been tricky, and historically, their support has decreased as elections near and the reality of playing spoiler grows. In fact, Kennedy’s support is already less than half of what it was in the previous battleground poll last fall, though that is most likely due, at least in part, to a change in the order of the questions asked.

A clear generational divide emerged in the surveys: Kennedy had more than twice as much support (15%) among voters younger than 45 as those older than 45 (7%). Kennedy, 70, is younger than Trump, 77, and Biden, 81, but if elected, he would still be one of the oldest presidents in U.S. history.

Kennedy entered the 2024 race as a Democrat running against Biden, and he received favorable coverage in conservative news outlets. The tenor has shifted now that he threatens Trump as well.

He appears to be siphoning support from some natural Trump constituencies, too. He garnered 13% support among the voters who said the country’s political and economic systems need to be torn down entirely.

With his famous Democratic last name, Kennedy is emerging as a force of unpredictability in an election that strategists in both parties expect to be extremely close. He is a possible outlet for voters frustrated with Biden but unready to make the leap to Trump and an option for those unhappy with Trump but unwilling to cast a ballot for Biden.

The poll was not one survey but six different ones across Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden won all six states in 2020 but was now trailing everywhere but Wisconsin among registered voters.

Kennedy’s support was remarkably consistent. He never scored below 9% or above 12% in any of the six states, with his backers spread evenly across cities, suburbs and rural areas, and among high-income and lower-wage workers.

Kennedy’s effect on the Biden-Trump contest, however, did differ by state.

In Michigan, Kennedy’s inclusion helped Biden narrow his gap with Trump among registered voters, by 5 percentage points. But in Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, Trump’s lead expanded by 2 percentage points when Kennedy was included.

When the survey considered only likely voters, Biden was narrowly leading in Michigan — but losing in Wisconsin.

It was not clear precisely what was causing the differences between the states.

What was clear was that six months out from the election, Kennedy’s support appears far more fragile than that of the two major candidates. Roughly 90% of supporters of the current or former president said they were very likely or almost certain to vote. But only two-thirds of Kennedy’s supporters said the same. And only 29% of Kennedy supporters said they were “definitely” backing him this fall — compared with roughly 80% who said that among Biden’s and Trump’s backers.

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