CNN analysis: Worms aside, RFK Jr. might make the debate stage | CNN Politics

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The 2024 election cycle got a lot weirder this week when it was revealed that independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. once had a worm enter and eat part of his brain. Kennedy, who says he has recovered from the worm injuries, went on to claim that he could eat “5 more brain worms and still beat” former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden in a debate.

Such stories and quotes might make you think that Kennedy is a sideshow this election year, but nothing could be further from the truth.

A look at the polling reveals Kennedy is polling better than any independent candidate since Ross Perot in 1996, even as many of his own supporters aren’t sure what he stands for. And he might do what Perot failed to do before him in 1996: make the fall debates against the major party nominees.

Last week, a CNN/SSRS poll made news by painting a dire picture for Biden. He trailed Trump by 6 points in a one-on-one match-up. Trump’s lead jumped to 9 points over Biden when Kennedy, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and independent Cornel West were included in the ballot test. Less publicized was that Kennedy got 16% in the survey.

There wasn’t a single poll that had Green Party nominee Ralph Nader in 2000 or Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson in 2016 with this level of support.

This 16% is important because the polling threshold for candidates to be included in the fall presidential debates has been 15% for the past 24 years. While other polls haven’t been nearly as kind to Kennedy, pretty much all of them have him hitting double-digits when he is a named option.

(To make the debate stage, candidates must also appear on state ballots totaling at least 270 electoral votes. This seems more than doable for Kennedy.)

The survey average will be key because Kennedy will need to be at 15% on average to make the debates. Kennedy so far has been averaging about 13% in the polls from media entities that the commission included in their 2020 average.

I should point out that third party and independent candidates tend to see their polling decline over the course of the campaign. This year, I’m not sure it’s anywhere close to a guarantee as both Biden and Trump have significantly higher negative ratings than positive ratings.

That said, Kennedy is a relative unknown. An NBC News poll, which explicitly offers “neutral” and “don’t know” as an option, found that the plurality (39%) said either “neutral” or “don’t know” when voters rated Kennedy. Among those with a positive or negative opinion, 29% gave a negative one and 32% gave a positive one.

This -3 point net rating was actually the best of any public figure that NBC News tested in that poll. Trump and Biden came in with -15 point and -14 point net ratings respectively.

But given that 39% of voters still didn’t have an opinion of Kennedy – either positive or negative – his net rating can best be described as “soft”.

Indeed, I’m not even sure his supporters or potential supporters understand his platform. Kennedy has been chastised by many for his unfounded views on vaccines and Covid-19. It was one of the first things that was written about him when he declared that he was running for president last year.

A recent Monmouth University poll informed voters that Kennedy “supports claims that autism is linked to vaccines and has said that Covid is targeted to attack people of certain races” and asked whether they had known about these stances before taking the poll.

Only 55% of voters knew about Kennedy’s beliefs. More interestingly, just 27% of people who said they would definitely or probably support Kennedy indicated that they knew about these stances. The vast majority, 73%, did not.

In other words, the people who were potential backers of Kennedy’s didn’t know what a lot of people would consider to be a key part of his position portfolio. The voters who knew most about Kennedy’s positions were the ones who said they would definitely vote against him.

Now, it’s quite possible that Kennedy voters will stick by him the more they hear about his positions. (The Monmouth poll suggested that this was a real possibility.) For many, Kennedy may be more than his vaccine position.

The fact that so few of his potential backers did know about vaccine and Covid-19 statements, however, points to the fact that he remains largely undefined. He could be more vulnerable to attack ads from opponents than the usual presidential candidate.

This lines up with what we’ve been seeing from Trump and his advocates: they’re going after Kennedy.

National polling for the most part has, after all, shown Kennedy voters prefer Trump to Biden, though not uniformly. An average of recent CNN and Quinnipiac University polls puts Trump up low double-digits in a two-way matchup among those who selected Kennedy when third party and independent candidates were included.

That may not seem like a lot, and it usually wouldn’t be. But in a country where elections have been so close recently, any little bit could make the difference.

Don’t expect Biden or Trump to allow Kennedy to surprise them. For now, Kennedy continues to be a viable option for many Americans. We’ll see if it stays that way.

Read More: CNN analysis: Worms aside, RFK Jr. might make the debate stage | CNN Politics

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