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Amid Biden, Trump unpopularity, RFK Jr. woos independents at Vegas rally

The third-party presidential candidate said he’d fix the border “immediately” and curtail drug production, while continuing to espouse health misinformation.
Eric Neugeboren
Eric Neugeboren
Election 2024
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Speaking to a Las Vegas crowd that included attendees who said they have become disillusioned with politics, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Sunday cast himself as the person who can bring back faith in the nation’s political system.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic because of his anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, is the latest member of his dynastic family — he is John F. Kennedy’s nephew — to enter the American political spotlight. He originally ran for president as a Democrat but switched to an independent bid last October and is now trying to land on the ballot in all 50 states ahead of the November general election.

In a 35-minute stump speech to hundreds of people at Area 15 — a Las Vegas event space with games and restaurants — Kennedy said that he would fix the “humanitarian crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border “immediately,” rebuild the American middle class and curtail drug production in the country, while also draining the “swamp,” which he said former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden failed to do.

“The Democratic Party and the Republican Party, neither of them are saying that they are offering a change. They're all saying you better vote for my candidate because the other guy is scary and he's going to destroy the republic,” Kennedy said. “Don't you think that Americans deserve something better than the lesser of two evils?”

Kennedy’s move to run as an independent has sparked fears among Democrats but mostly Republicans, given his popularity among Republican voters and the chance he could pull enough votes to swing the expectedly close election either way. A Siena College/New York Times poll from October found 23 percent of Nevadans supported Kennedy, 8 percentage points behind Biden and 15 behind Trump.

Seven rally attendees said in interviews that Kennedy mainly appealed to them because he was not beholden to a single party. Some interviewees said they voted for both Biden and Trump in the past — the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees for president this year — but that they have lost faith in the two-party political system.

“Vote the party line — I feel like that’s the main message,” said Emily Gregoire, 44, who voted for Biden four years ago but would vote for Trump if Kennedy isn’t on her ballot.

So far, Kennedy has only qualified for Utah’s ballot. To land on Nevada’s ballot, he must receive and submit 10,095 signatures — 1 percent of total votes cast for all Nevada congressional candidates in 2022 — to state election officials by July 5. He did not mention Nevada in his speech and will not be on this week’s primary ballot. In December, the super PAC supporting Kennedy dropped Nevada as one of the states to prioritize landing on the ballot. Sunday was Kennedy’s first public appearance in the state this campaign cycle.

Independent presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks for at a voters rally at Area 15 on Feb. 4, 2024, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent)

Kennedy has repeatedly espoused misinformation around the safety of vaccines and founded a nonprofit that promoted COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies. He has said that “there’s no vaccine that is safe and effective” — a comment he has since tried to walk back — claimed that vaccines cause autism and suggested last year that the virus might have been “ethnically targeted” to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people. 

His other policy positions include relatively mainstream Democratic positions. He supports a federal $15 minimum wage, transitioning to cleaner energy sources and reform that “will reorient police to serve, not occupy, Black communities,” according to his website. He has also stated that he supports abortion rights, and has said that he misspoke when he said last year that he would support a federal abortion ban 15 weeks into a pregnancy.

But he has recently gone after the Biden administration’s border policies. He sided with Trump and the state of Texas in a legal dispute over the use of razor wire barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, days after the U.S. Supreme Court granted a request from the federal government to cut down the wires.

Third-party candidates regularly appear on Nevada’s presidential ballots, but they have only made a dent in three elections since 1992 and only once in the past six elections. Nonpartisans make up one-third of the Nevada electorate, the highest among any group.

In 2016, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson received more than 37,000 votes in Nevada — 3.3 percent of the total — which was more than the difference between Democrat Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Trump. Ross Perot, the founder of the Reform Party, also made serious headwinds in 1992 and his share of the electorate four years later was nearly 10 times the final margin between President Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole. 

However, the last time a third-party candidate won Nevada in a presidential election was in 1892, when fewer than 11,000 state residents cast ballots. Still, Kennedy’s goal isn’t to play spoiler between Trump or Biden — he told New York Magazine last year that “my intention is to spoil it for both of them.”

Supporters listen to independent presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak at a voters rally at Area 15 on Feb. 4, 2024, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent)

‘The medical cartel’

Kennedy began his speech by referencing “the medical cartel,” accusing companies of intentionally making kids sick by shipping drugs to communities across the U.S..

“We have a whole generation — these kids are not supposed to be sick like this,” Kennedy said. 

“Republicans and Democrats, when you ask them about health care, they're arguing about whether we should have Obamacare or whether we should have single payer or whether we should have public private option,” he added. “All of those discussions are just about moving deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Kennedy also continued to spread health misinformation. His beliefs on vaccines date back to at least 2005, and have been thoroughly rejected by health organizations and independent fact-checkers. At an anti-vaccine conference in November, Kennedy said he felt that he’d
“come home,” but has said since announcing his presidential bid that he is not anti-vax.

On Sunday, Kennedy referenced a statistic that he said he heard on former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson’s podcast that 30 percent of American youth are diabetic. (The American Diabetes Association has reported that 0.35 percent of Americans under 20 is diabetic.)

He added that in his first week in office, he would tell the National Institutes of Health to take a “break” on drug production and efforts to curtail infectious diseases.

Kennedy described the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a “catastrophe for everybody” that he would fix “immediately,” without saying how. Speaking to reporters after the event, he said he would increase the number of Border Patrol agents and asylum judges, as well as repair parts of the border wall.

Kennedy briefly addressed other policy issues, voicing his support for school choice programs and military spending cuts, while also pledging to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

He criticized Trump and Biden for getting bogged down by bureaucracy. He applauded Trump for his initial acceptance of hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus — which medical experts have repeatedly debunked — before government bureaucracy got in the way.

He also denounced Trump’s response to the pandemic.

“He said great things. He said, ‘I don’t want to do lockdowns,’” Kennedy said. “And then a week later, he ordered them.”

‘Tribalism is not good’

Anthony Zabeti, 21, said he’s always been skeptical of politicians.

2024 will be Zabeti’s first time voting in a presidential election, and he said he was drawn to Kennedy because the candidate became an independent last year.

“It's horrible how we're so programmed to being left or right,” Zabeti said. “This tribalism is not good.”

While not all of the interviewed attendees on Sunday said they had made up their minds on supporting Kennedy, they agreed that their interest in his candidacy was in part due to dissatisfaction with choosing again between Biden and Trump.

Mike Vogle, 65, voted for Trump in 2020 and still supports him, viewing a vote for Kennedy as a vote against Biden. He said there is likely some merit to the criminal allegations against Trump, and he supported Kennedy’s stances against COVID-19 vaccines, which he said “were not tested enough.”

“He seems to be honest, and he's not gonna cash in because he cashed in when he was born,” Vogle said.

James Battaglia, 51, also supported Trump four years ago but said that the country needs “a new direction.” He also thinks Biden “is not coherent” enough to be president.

“Both options for president right now are just a mess, and I don't like that at all,” Battaglia said.

Siblings Malia and Mike Kern traveled from Arizona to see Kennedy. Malia, 16, is a staunch Kennedy supporter, while Mike, 23, wanted to hear what he had to say.

Alexandre Gregoire, 40, also said he did not know too much about Kennedy, but that he wanted someone in the middle of Trump and Biden.

Gregoire attended with his wife, Emily, who voted for Biden four years ago — which she said she did not regret, but believes this year is the right time to vote third-party because of voters’ disapproval of Trump and Biden.

“The soil has never been more perfect to vote independent,” she said.

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