Three words told the story. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign had billed this afternoon’s event in Philadelphia as a “much-anticipated announcement.” Of course, that specific phrase may have been more true than intended.
Ever since Kennedy entered the Democratic presidential primary race in the spring, observers had been anticipating that he’d one day announce his honest intentions as a 2024 candidate. Given Kennedy’s rhetoric, his positions, and his support from conservative operatives, was he really running as a Democrat? A couple thousand people—supporters, journalists, campaign volunteers, people with nothing to do—trekked to Philly to find out.
The candidate was nothing if not on message. Standing in front of a backdrop that read DECLARE YOUR INDEPENDENCE, Kennedy looked out at Independence Hall as he spoke of “a new declaration of independence for our entire nation.” He rattled off a list of everything we’d soon be independent from: cynical elites, the mainstream media, wealthy donors. (Though, presumably, not the same wealthy donors who recently raised more than $2 million for him and his super PAC at a private estate in Brentwood, California, with help from his friend Eric Clapton). Onstage, Kennedy formally declared his independence “from the Democratic Party and all other political parties”—perhaps an unsubtle way to shoot down speculation that he might change his mind and run as a Libertarian, or even a Republican. As his wife, Cheryl Hines, said a bit cryptically before her husband took the stage: “Are you really ready for Bobby Kennedy?”
Kennedy, whom many came to know as a Boomer environmentalist, was the star of this mellow show with a distinct ’60s campus vibe. At one table, attendees were invited to literally sketch their vision of the future on blank sheets of paper with colored pens. Throngs gathered on the grass in front of the National Constitution Center and were led in a Native American tribal dance, followed by the inoffensive piano stylings of Tim Hockenberry, who covered “Jersey Girl” in a Springsteen growl. Outside the entrance, enterprising vendors sold an array of Kennedy memorabilia: buttons that read RESIST INSANITY, RAGE AGAINST THE PROPAGANDA MACHINE, and FIT TO BE PRESIDENT, featuring a photo of a buff, shirtless Kennedy. One attendee waved a giant black-and-white flag with a message for their fellow Kennedy-heads: WE ARE THE CONTROL GROUP. Many people wore fedoras.
They came from all over. Michael Schroth, 69, and his wife, Luz, had taken a 4:30 a.m. bus down from Boston. Schroth told me he voted for Barack Obama twice, but also voted for the third-party candidate Ralph Nader twice, as well as Jill Stein in 2016. “I look for the best candidate, and I don’t care if they’re going to win or not. It’s getting the idea out,” he said. Chris Devol, 56, from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hoodie and smiling ear to ear as he awaited Kennedy’s arrival. Devol told me he had voted for the third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992, and that although he wasn’t sure whether he’d support Kennedy next November, he “100 percent” supported the idea of him competing in the Democratic primary. An elderly woman named Barbara (last name withheld), a retired teacher from Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, told me she believed that President Joe Biden wasn’t doing anything to address the nation’s drug problem. She said a bag of fentanyl was recently found on the steps of her local church, then asked me if I was familiar with the Boxer Rebellion.
Prior to Kennedy’s address, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, one of the opening speakers, asked for a moment of silence to honor the violence of this past weekend. Someone in the crowd yelled out “Warmonger!” Another screamed, “Free the Palestinians!” Boteach acknowledged neither individual, and said he greatly respects Kennedy, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, as a man of faith. Later, Kennedy said he had arrived at a place where he was serving only his conscience, his creator, and “you”—the voters.
This afternoon marked the culmination of what he described as a “very painful” decision. He noted his long-standing ties to the Democrats, the party of his family, which he casually referred to as a dynasty, before tearing into the tyranny of the two-party system. For weeks, Kennedy had been attacking the Democratic National Committee for “rigging” the primary process. (The DNC has refused to hold primary debates, as is custom when a party’s incumbents are running for reelection.) Kennedy has been polling in the double digits against Biden, but his support hasn’t grown meaningfully since he launched his campaign. As of last Friday, according to the FiveThirtyEight average, Kennedy was polling at 16.4 percent compared with Biden’s 61.2 percent. Four of his siblings—Kerry Kennedy, Rory Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend—issued a statement today denouncing their brother’s newly independent candidacy, calling his decision “perilous for our country.” Kennedy acknowledged the challenge ahead of him. “There have been independent candidates in this country before,” he said. “But this time it’s going to be different.”
Kennedy is the second candidate in as many weeks to go rogue. Cornel West dropped his Green Party affiliation in favor of an independent bid, telling The New York Times, “I am a jazz man in politics and the life of the mind who refuses to play only in a party band!” Though neither Democrats nor Republicans seem particularly worried about the candidacies of West or Marianne Williamson, Kennedy is different. “The Democrats are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Biden, and the Republicans are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Trump,” Kennedy said. He waited for a strategic beat. “The truth is, they’re both right.”
All year long, mainstream Democrats have tried to pretend that Kennedy simply doesn’t exist, with mixed results. Both the Biden campaign and the DNC declined to comment today on Kennedy’s switch. The RNC, for its part, blasted out a list of “23 Reasons to Oppose RFK Jr.,” and reports have been circulating that Trump’s allies are preparing to pummel Kennedy with opposition research. Last week, the election analyst Nate Silver argued that Kennedy’s independent run won’t necessarily hurt Biden, and it might even help him. David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Barack Obama’s campaigns, took a different view. “I think anything that lowers the threshold for winning helps Trump, who has a high floor and low ceiling [of support,]” Axelrod told me.
Kennedy tantalized the crowd with nuggets that purport to make the case for his electability: “I have seen the polls that they won’t show you.” He pointed out that 63 percent of Americans want an independent to run for president. Though he didn’t cite the origin of this statistic, it aligns with recent Gallup polling, which also showed that 58 percent of Republicans endorse a third U.S. political party, up from 45 percent last year.
Kennedy has built his candidacy, and his career as a lawyer and writer more broadly, on the idea that there are lots of things “they won’t show you.” As I wrote in a profile of Kennedy this summer, he has promoted a theory that Wi-Fi radiation causes cancer and “leaky brain,” saying it “opens your blood-brain barrier.” He has suggested that antidepressants might have contributed to the rise in mass shootings. He told me he believes that Ukraine is engaged in a “proxy” war and that Russia’s invasion, although “illegal,” would not have taken place if the United States “didn’t want it to.”
“He’s drawing from many of those Trump voters—the two-time Obama, onetime Trump—that are still disaffected, want change, and maybe haven’t found a permanent home in the Trump movement,” Steve Bannon told me as I was reporting the profile. “Populist left, populist right, and where that Venn diagram overlaps—he’s talking to those people.”
The reality is that Kennedy will have an extremely hard time even getting his name on the ballot. The GOP “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who earlier this year was accused of being among those propping up Kennedy’s candidacy (something he has repeatedly denied), told me in a text message that Kennedy faces a “Herculean task” with “50 different state laws written by Republicans and Democrats working together to make ballot access as difficult as possible.” Even if Kennedy is right and voters are looking for a true alternative to Trump and Biden, mathematically, Kennedy’s path to 270 electoral votes is almost incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, he said he believes that he is at the start of a new American moment. “Something is stirring in us that says, It doesn’t have to be this way,” Kennedy said onstage. He nodded to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech from the eve of his assassination and quoted Abraham Lincoln quoting Jesus Christ: “A house divided cannot stand.” He said that the left and the right had become “all mixed up.” He said that he was proud to count those on both sides of the abortion debate among his supporters, in addition to “climate activists” and “climate skeptics,” and, of course, the “vaccinated” and the “unvaccinated.” Perhaps saying the quiet part out loud, Kennedy said it would be very hard for people to tell “whether my administration is left or right.” He had no shortage of curious metaphors. He promised not just to “take the wheel,” but to “reboot the GPS.” The nation’s two-party system? “A two-headed monster that leads us over a cliff.” And, in case it wasn’t clear: “At the bottom of that cliff is the destruction of our country.”
When I interviewed Kennedy for the profile, I asked him what he thought would be more dangerous for the country: four more years of Biden, or another Trump term. “I can’t answer that,” he said.
Around that time, I asked his campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, if Kennedy was committed to running solely as a Democratic candidate.
“He’s running in the Democratic primary,” Kucinich responded.
“So, no chance of a third party?”
“He’s running in the Democratic primary.”
“Gotcha. And nothing could change that?”
“He’s running in the Democratic primary.”
Today, after Kennedy finished speaking, Kucinich briefly seized the mic and led the crowd in a building, dramatic chant:
“I declare my independence!”