Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Dream Campaign


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. smiled, threw up a stilted wave, and made eye contact with nobody in particular. He was shuffling into Puckett’s restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee, earlier this month for a plate of midday meatloaf. No advance team had peppered the room with stickers or buttons bearing his name. No one had tipped off the local media. Flanked by his press secretary and a couple of plainclothes security guards, Kennedy made his way toward a large table back near the kitchen, where he and I were scheduled to meet for an interview. The roughly two dozen lunch patrons didn’t appear to clock him, nor did the waiter.

Kennedy’s independent campaign for the White House has a loose, confounding energy to it. Most presidential candidates would glad-hand at a place like Puckett’s; Kennedy didn’t bother. Rather than run on a policy slogan—“Medicare for all,” “Build the wall”—Kennedy has opted for something closer to mysticism. He uses the word existential in nearly every speech. He spends an inordinate amount of time on podcasts.

“You know, so much of life, we see from the surface,” Kennedy told me that day. “It’s like the surface of the ocean. There’s a storm going on, there’s winds blowing, and we get preoccupied with ambitions, with fear, with, you know, trepidation. And then if you sink a few feet below the ocean, it’s calm there. And that, I think, is where we’re supposed to spend as much time as possible, in that place where it’s peaceful, where you understand everything is kind of an illusion. We’re walking through a dream, and our job is to be kind to people, to be open, to be tolerant.”

Despite this hazy rhetoric, establishment Democrats consider Kennedy to be a concrete danger to the future of democracy. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has called Kennedy “a living, breathing false-flag operation” whose “whole campaign is being run by right-wing political operatives who have one objective: try to take down President Joe Biden.”

When I first interviewed Kennedy last year, many people derided him as a distraction who would quickly fade into obscurity. Five months out from Election Day, Kennedy is polling in the double digits and fighting for nationwide ballot access. His team insists that voters will be able to pull the lever for him in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Many political observers have argued that, like past third-party candidates who have hurt Democrats, he is poised to draw more votes from Biden than from former President Donald Trump. A recent New York Times/Siena poll showed that Kennedy has particularly strong support among young voters and Latinos, two groups Biden needs more than Trump. Yet he’s also drawing support from Republicans and conservatives. Many of these voters are willing to look past his conspiratorial, anti-vaccination statements. Some may share his views.

While Biden and Trump fight for first place, Kennedy is zigzagging around the country, talking about our need to reconnect with the Earth and rediscover our shared humanity. Born and raised an East Coast Catholic, he now resembles an aging California hippie preaching New Age mantras. He’s not running a winning operation so much as he’s on a public self-actualization journey. And America will have to live with the consequences.

Like with Biden and Trump, Kennedy’s mental state receives armchair diagnoses on a daily basis. But, unlike Biden and Trump, Kennedy says he once had a parasitic worm in his brain. I asked him if he would consent to undergoing a cognitive test. “The cognitive exam is called the debates. I would gladly take it,” he said. “I take a cognitive exam every time I do a podcast—I challenge the other candidates to take the cognitive test with me.” He added that he’d release his medical records if his chief opponents did the same.

Three nights before our lunch in Tennessee, I showed up at Kennedy’s rally in Austin, Texas. Outside the venue I spotted one attendee with colorful markers scribbling out a homemade sign: WORMS NOT WARS. The man, a 39-year-old named Steven Kinsey, told me he had spent his entire adult life supporting Democrats, including Biden. But several months ago he happened to hear Kennedy on Theo Von’s podcast when the episode came up on shuffle. “I was like, ‘Oh, isn’t that that crazy Kennedy?’” he said. “So I just left it on for entertainment purposes. And I was blown away. I was like, ‘This isn’t the same guy that everyone says is wacko.’”

Kennedy’s rhetoric—whether you believe it to be wacko or compelling—is full of contradictions. He views himself as a pacifist—an anti-war candidate who nonetheless falls to the right of many liberals on key issues of the moment, including Israel in its war with Hamas. Kennedy told me he is “very pro-Palestinian,” but like Biden, he is steadfastly supporting Israel. “I think, for Israel’s future, for Gaza’s future, Hamas has to be gotten rid of,” he said. “I don’t see what happens in a cease-fire. I don’t even understand what people, you know, expect out of it.”

Kennedy made headlines in early May for saying he supported abortion rights up until the moment of birth. But over lunch with me several days later, he explained why he had already modified his position, supporting abortion rights only to the point of fetal viability. “I’ve had 40 years that show that I’m pretty indifferent to a political cost of whatever issue,” he said. “If I’m wrong about something, if somebody shows me facts, I’m going to change my mind.” When I asked whether he’d enshrine abortion rights at the federal level, he was cagey. “Maybe an early—you know—before viability,” he said. “Listen, I don’t tell people I’m going to do something I don’t think can be done.”

In the early 2000s, Kennedy helped popularize the idea that vaccines cause autism, a theory that remains scientifically unproven. Last summer, he falsely claimed that the coronavirus pandemic may have been “ethnically targeted” to attack Caucasians and Black people, and that “Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese” are most immune from the virus. Nevertheless, he rejects the anti-vax label. “First of all, virtually everything that the press has written about my opinion of vaccines is wrong,” he told me. He said he believes that his position on vaccines is “aligned with what 99 percent of Americans feel.” In a bit of revisionist history, he said his stance boils down to “If people want vaccines they should be able to get ’em. I’m not going to do anything to interfere with that.” He told me that he wants people to have “the best science” on risk and efficacy. “And that’s all I’ve been saying for years. And that the people who are injured by vaccines, there’s a certain amount of people who are injured, and that we ought to be listening to them, not telling them that they’re fine and gaslighting them.”

Kennedy has practically zero chance of winning the White House and turning these policy positions into laws. As of now, he won’t participate in the first presidential debate in June. During our lunch, I asked him which state he most believes he’ll win, or, more generally, if he has a viable path to 270 electoral votes. He mentioned a few spots where he’s gaining traction, but couldn’t answer either question definitively. “I’m only peripherally involved in that part of the campaign,” he said of state-level plans—he was saying, in other words, that he’s not involved in the part of the campaign that’s concerned with trying to win the election. He deferred my nuts-and-bolts queries to his campaign manager, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, his daughter-in-law.

“You know, there’s a mathematical answer,” she told me by phone last night. “But there’s also an answer that really has continued to transcend math all the way through.” She referred to this as “the America that almost was and what could be,” paraphrasing the author Charles Eisenstein. “Part of what I think a lot of observers, at least at this stage in the cycle, get wrong, is looking at national races rather than looking at individual states and how together they deliver a new leader to the White House,” she said.

I asked her which individual states her campaign will win.

“Well, you know, John, I would love to tell you that list,” she said. “One of the aspects to our electoral map that’s extremely important is not signaling where we’re going to be focused, ensuring advertising rates and attention and so forth are affordable and achievable there. So I can’t share the states with you except to say that Bobby is speaking to all Americans, and most especially to Americans who’ve been completely ignored by the map of the two-party system for decades and decades and are ready to have a say in the system.”

I asked her again. She eventually said that her team has a list of 29 states, but refused to share any of them, raising the possibility that Kennedy’s opponents may try to infiltrate their campaign. “Where we see the strongest numbers right now is, you know, the matter of a lot of internal polling. I’m sure the other campaigns are doing their own internal polling. But in the balance of resources, it wouldn’t be wise for us to spend a lot of hours on polling and then share them publicly.”

Though Kennedy will almost certainly lose the election, he could still affect its outcome by being a spoiler. The Democrats sense this. The DNC recently hired the veteran operative Lis Smith to lead a team focused on attacking third-party candidates, Kennedy in particular. Outside Kennedy’s rally in Austin, a black box truck drove laps around the venue. Among the rotating messages on its exterior about Kennedy and his running mate: WHY IS TRUMP’S TOP DONOR SPENDING $20 MILLION TO PROP UP RFK JR. AND NICOLE SHANAHAN? Beneath Photoshopped images of the two candidates in MAGA hats was a disclaimer: PAID FOR BY THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE.

The Democratic pollster and strategist Ben Tulchin has recently been looking closely at two swing states, Arizona and Pennsylvania. In Arizona, in particular, Tulchin’s data indicate that Kennedy is a bigger threat to Biden than he is to Trump, especially among young people and Latinos. “I’ve been raising the alarm with the Democratic Party and anyone who will hear me in the Biden campaign,” Tulchin told me.

At the national level, though, a clear picture has yet to emerge. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told me in an email, “There is no evidence in the current polls that conclusively points to RFK pulling more support from either side.” He continued, “The problem is, of course, with expected close outcomes in a few key Electoral College states, any small spoiler effect that’s hidden in the polling margins can have major consequences. Sample polling may not be precise enough to find it, unless you can interview every voter. That type of polling is called an election.”

Kennedy keeps steadily attracting not just independents but a mix of Democrats and Republicans alike. This aligns with what I’ve noticed at his events—a diverse generational cross section: crypto bros, cowboys, crunchy hippies. Kennedy looks out from the stage and sees it, too—all the wide-eyed voters looking back.

To stiff-arm the spoiler characterization, Kennedy refers to his own polling that shows he’d defeat either Biden or Trump in head-to-head matchups. “I’m not a spoiler, because I can win,” he told me flatly.

Trump rallies brim with a dystopian, campy Americana. Biden rallies barely exist. Kennedy rallies, meanwhile, tend to feel like giant house parties. Opening acts usually include cover bands, and many attendees mingle while sipping drinks. Inside the downtown-Austin venue, nearly 1,000 people milled about multiple bars and listened to a band cycle through crowd favorites: Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” and, in an ironic twist, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”

One of the first speakers that night was the regenerative-farming influencer Ryland Engelhart. He quoted the mystic poet Rumi and affectionately likened the RFK Jr. campaign to Noah’s Ark—“a big foolish project.” Engelhart told the crowd that he had been sitting on the toilet scrolling through his phone when he first discovered Kennedy and his message. He spoke wistfully about a recent fundraiser that ended with Kennedy joining his donors in a sweat lodge. He paraphrased another Rumi line at the end of his speech: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. Then offered a 2024 addendum: “There is a president beyond Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I will meet you there.”

Shanahan made a rare public appearance that night. A Silicon Valley businesswoman and reported billionaire, she has no political experience and is not a natural public speaker. Most of her message was not about the election, but about topics such as healthy soil and the danger of forever chemicals in food. “A lot of our most innovative solutions come from outside conventional politics—they are in the realm of what’s been called ‘alternative,’” she said. “Yes, I know that sounds so radical. It shouldn’t. I have seen the power of these little alternative ways of thinking in my own life. I have used alternative health practices to restore my health, my fertility … I know what is possible when you think with an alternative, creative mindset.”

When Kennedy took the stage, he told the crowd, “Every time I see her speak, I fall a little bit more in love with her.” He went on, “Most of the presidential candidates we have today, they sound like they’re doing a satire of Veep. And that’s not what you hear from Nicole—you hear a lecture about soil!” He warned that the more Americans spend on medicine, the unhealthier we get. “What is it that is causing us not to see that?” he asked. “What is it that is causing us to constantly feed this beast that is making us more and more sick all the time? It’s the corrupt political system. It’s the subversion of our democracy.” His message built toward a call-and-response finale. “If Nicole and I get into office, everything is going to change,” Kennedy said.

“Don’t you want everything to change?”

“Yes!” the crowd shouted.

“Is there anything that you want to keep the same?”

“No!”

Some of the people most concerned about Kennedy’s impact on the election are members of his own family. Last year, a few Kennedys began speaking out against what they saw as the dangers of his campaign. His brother Christopher Kennedy recently characterized RFK as “unreachable,” a “true believer” with “fringe thinking,” “crackpot ideas,” and “unsound judgment.” On St. Patrick’s Day this year, dozens of Kennedys gathered at the White House and took a family photo with Biden—an unsubtle message to RFK.

I asked Kennedy what had gone through his mind when he saw that photo. He stared off at a refrigerator along the wall separating the restaurant’s dining room from its kitchen. He wiped his eye. He leaned forward with both elbows on the table. All told, it took him 34 seconds to formulate his answer. Kennedy acknowledged that he has family members who are “not enthused” about his candidacy, and some who are supporting him. “I don’t harbor resentments anymore,” he said. “I just don’t. I think they’re corrosive. They’re like swallowing poison and hoping someone else will die.”

He told me that he had expected to be polling well among his fellow Baby Boomers, because they were the ones with the most nostalgia for his father and uncle—the Camelot era. But so far, he said, younger people were his strongest bloc of support, people who likely didn’t think much about that history. I asked if he felt primarily like a Kennedy, someone carrying on a family legacy, or if he saw himself as just Bobby.

“Where do we get our sense of self?” he asked. “It comes from the principles which are the boundaries of that entity. The principles, the places where we say to ourselves, ‘I would never do that.’ And it comes from, you know, feelings that are the product of our history and our culture and our genes. You know, I grew up in this family. That lucky event, for me, has been one of the formative features and forces of my life. And has crafted everything I believe in as a person. It’d be hard for me to separate myself from my family.”

He characterized the past year of campaigning as “a very intense lesson on all the things that you’re supposed to learn in the course of your life.” Running for president, he said, teaches you how to process antipathy. “You got a lot of hatred coming in, and anger, and then, you know, the opposite of that, too.” The goal he chases is to treat “everything as an imposter,” even the adulation. But he seems to have a harder time with that last part.

“I think one of the inspiring things for me is how many people have put hopes in me for change. And I’m sure if you interview some of these people who are following me, it’s extraordinary to me that so many people show up,” he said. “A lot of them come to me crying and just voice their hopes. And it feels like a big responsibility.” He told me that this has changed him in a “fundamental” way. “It’s made me try to be the person that, you know, people hope I am.”

It’s hard to know who that person is, or what he stands for. Kennedy told me that he believes the worst things Trump did as president were instituting lockdowns during the early phase of the pandemic and walking away from a nuclear-weapons treaty with Russia. He referred to Biden’s border policy as “a catastrophe.” He wants voters to distrust the government, yet he also wants to run the government. Kennedy remains a magnet for the disillusioned. His philosophy isn’t profound, but his supporters seem to know that he’s saying something, and that it’s a little dangerous and alluring. In an election with two deeply unpopular major-party candidates, that message—even if it doesn’t add up to much—is resonating.



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