Between the bongo drums and saxophone, the guy hawking buttons featuring a shirtless Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (“Fit to Be President!”), the men darting around in dark suits and sunglasses (stand-ins for the Secret Service detail Kennedy has still not received), the throngs of jubilant supporters, and the giant tour buses bearing the candidate’s grinning countenance, the entire spectacle would have made a convenient diversion for anyone planning an elaborate heist of the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center was selected for a different reason: to serve as a corny metaphor. On cue, a man hurried past, muttering into an earpiece: “I need the screensavers to not say ‘Declare Your Independence’ yet.” The message, which had been blaring from twin jumbotrons beside the stage where Kennedy was scheduled to make an “important announcement” later that day, was replaced by a TV test pattern — even as a giant banner bearing the same slogan hung across the back of the stage.
By then, the worst-kept secret in U.S. politics was out: Kennedy, heir to the most recognizable name in Democratic politics, was ditching the party and mounting an independent bid for president. For months, it’d been clear this moment was imminent. Kennedy — who commanded as much as 20 percent of Democratic primary voters’ support earlier this summer — had been steadily collecting compliments and cashing checks from high-profile Republicans, making pilgrimages to the border and appearances on both conservative and conspiracy-curious podcasts.
At a certain point, the question was no longer whether Kennedy would launch a third party bid. The question was which presumptive major party candidate his independent candidacy would hurt more: Joe Biden or Donald Trump.
It’s been decades since a candidate from outside the two-party system has launched a credible bid for president, but with more than half of voters holding negative opinions of the presumptive candidates, and support for a third party at historic high (63 percent in favor), a third party candidate — whether its Kennedy, or ex-Bernie Sanders surrogate Cornel West, or West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin running on the No Labels ballot line — is poised to have a seismic impact in 2024.
For that reason, four of Robert Kennedy’s siblings publicly denounced their brother’s decision — calling it “dangerous to our country” — before he had even finished his speech on Monday. The implication was clear: his bid, in their view, increased the likelihood of a second Trump term.
Republicans, meanwhile, seem unconvinced they would be the beneficiaries: Semafor reported that Trump’s campaign is concerned enough that it is readying lines of attack against Kennedy, and the Republican National Committee cobbled together a list of 23 reasons why conservatives shouldn’t support Kennedy. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel even put out a statement sniping that “a Democrat in Independent’s clothing is still a Democrat.”
But apocalyptic warnings like those were shrugged by the hundreds of Kennedyheads who crowded on Independence Mall on Monday. Many described themselves as former Democrats of the recent or distant past who found their way to Kennedy during the pandemic, drawn in by his activism around vaccines.
Irene Coller drove to Philadelphia from Texas with her husband, their three kids, and their goldendoodle: “I felt a calling with this,” she says. Coller first became interested in Kennedy’s message when she and her family still lived in LA during the pandemic. Back then, she explains, “We had a hiking trail at the end of our street and they caution-taped it shut” — an early Covid-era precaution that ultimately drove the family to pack up their belongings and move to Texas. Coller says they haven’t looked back.
A former Democrat, Coller says she registered with the Green Party prior to 2016. “I’ve voted for the lesser of two evils my whole life. I’m sick of it. I’m ready for something else,” she puts it plainly.
Linsey Hurley first began paying attention to Kennedy during the pandemic too. “He was making a lot of sense,” Hurley says. “When the vaccine rolled out and they said it was mRNA, I just knew. I avoid GMO foods. Why would I want a GMO injection?”
“I’ve been a strong Democrat all my life,” Hurley says. “The Democrats held the values that I believe in, which is for peace, for freedom, bodily sovereignty — that’s what Democrats were about. And now they’re all saying: You gotta get the jab.”
Bennett Weiss, the button merchant, was a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016 and 2020. For that reason, he says, he wouldn’t have dreamed of supporting Kennedy if he had stayed running as a Democrat. “There wasn’t a chance in the world they would let him [win]. They rigged it against Bernie twice. [Kennedy] had even less of a chance.”
He says he told Kennedy’s campaign manager, the former Congressman Dennis Kuccinich, as much while selling his buttons at a different Kennedy event earlier this year. “I said, ‘You’re insane [for running as a Democrat]. You’re wasting people’s time and money… You’re gonna get a bad case of fleas if you lie down with those dogs.’”
His enthusiasm for Kennedy was somewhat dampened by the candidate’s statement in support of Israel this weekend — Weiss called the sentiment “hideous” — but he added, “The importance of getting rid of this duopoly trumps even that.”
“If he gets anything north of even 10 to 15 percent, I think it sends a powerful message that voters are starting to wake up and realize that these two parties are mirror images of each other, that the whole thing is a farce.”
Peter Pantazis, who started volunteering his time for the campaign this summer, cited a 2014 Princeton study when explaining why he’s backing Kennedy. The study concluded the average voter has virtually no influence at all on U.S. policy — only “organized groups and economic elites” do.
“Bobby Kennedy is the only person I’ve seen that actually is addressing the number one issue in our country today, which is corporate government collusion and corruption,” Pantazis says.
Like the others, Pantazis says he “used to identify as a Democrat. I’m socially liberal, meaning I’m anti-war, anti-corruption… But now I’d probably be considered a right-wing extremist because I’m anti-war, I’m pro-free speech.”
Bud McClure is a retired college professor who splits his time between Minnesota and Florida. He voted for Biden in 2020, but these days he says, “I don’t see any difference” between the president and his predecessor. He doesn’t see a scenario in which Kennedy actually makes it to the White House, but he sees him as “a hero on a hero’s journey.”
In his speech, Kennedy acknowledged the obvious dynamics. “The Democrats are frightened that I’m gonna spoil the election for President Biden. The Republicans are frightened that I’m gonna spoil it for President Trump. The truth is, they’re both right,” he quipped. “My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”
If Monday’s event was any indication, though, Kennedy’s base is largely made up of voters who the Democratic Party lost somewhere along the way.
In the end, I only found two Republicans in the crowd: Craig Kinard described himself as a “big Trump supporter.” He and his son, Noah, made the trek from Connecticut to see Kennedy because he “wanted to make sure he had a nice turnout today.”
Kennedy’s message, Kinard said, resonated with him. “We’re being almost told to hate each other, and I don’t like it. I think it’s destructive. I love America,” he says. He sees a similarity in the coverage of Trump and Kennedy. “All you gotta do is just basically look at the way they’re both treated by the media — and Rolling Stone is probably one of the worst offenders, by the way.”
Unlike the ex-Democrats on the mall that day, though, Kinard hadn’t been pushed to the point where he was ready to switch horses yet.
“I’d vote for him over several Republicans that are on the debate stage,” he says of Kennedy. But he still plans to support Donald Trump in 2024: “If they threw him in jail, I’d probably still vote for him.”