Many aspects of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s run for the nomination of the Democratic Party this year remind me of Donald Trump in 2015. His rallies are packed. His social media following is huge. He seems to be everywhere in independent media. He's raising lots of money. He has fresh ideas. He's articulate and brave.
Meanwhile, the campaign of the supposed front-runner for the nomination, President Joe Biden, is unspeakably moribund.
But there is one major difference. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) doesn't want a primary at all. They have rigged the entire system to make it nearly impossible for Mr. Kennedy to make any headway, even if he wins primary after primary. The DNC has been kvetching for voting rights for years but now wants to take rights away from members of its own party.
“Further, the Georgia Democratic Party has a rule allowing it to ban from the ballot any candidate who doesn’t follow the DNC rules. The reason the DNC made the change appears to be to rig the primary process in favor of its anointed candidate, Mr. Biden.”
This has naturally given rise to speculation that Mr. Kennedy will go independent. He will just forget about the Democrats and seek out the presidency on a third-party ticket or go solo. On the surface, this seems like a good idea, and, truly, the vast support for his ideas, not to mention his huge favorability ranking, would seem to point to this as a solution. It certainly would be gloriously entertaining. I’m not even discouraging the idea.
Yes, this is a demoralizing realization, but let’s see how this works. When you go to the voting booth, you aren't just voting for the candidate you like. You know this well. In fact, we rarely, if ever, really fully favor the platform or ideas of the candidate for whom we vote. We vote strategically. We vote against the person we despise the most. Candidates are good at inspiring this thinking. That's the reason for so much negativity in political races.
It's entirely likely that we're willing to bypass voting for the person whom we like the most in order to prevent the person we hate the most from winning the election. This is indeed how it goes most of the time.
Many Trump voters feel this way today: They aren't fans but are pretty sure that President Biden would be worse. Same with Biden voters: He pretty well has no fans, so his only role is to keep President Trump out of office.
How does Mr. Kennedy fit into this? There’s the problem: he doesn't. He might be beloved by multitudes who want him to be president. But these people will end up supporting one of the main candidates to keep their least favorite from winning.
You encounter this routinely in most elections. You're thinking about a marginal candidate or a third party and let that be known. Someone in your circle will scream at you that you're only helping the worst of the mainstream candidates. You need to rally around someone whom you don’t particularly like in order to ensure the defeat of the person you loathe.
This doesn’t just happen in political rhetoric. It's precisely what happens at the voting booth, too. In my own view, it's a huge flaw in the winner-take-all system. A system of proportional representation is much more accommodating to bids from smaller groups and causes, which then become bigger over time. When people vote for the unusual candidate or cause, they still win at least some representation. It's a major problem for the American system, but it's an undeniable reality.
In the case of Mr. Kennedy, it’s hard to say which side he hurts the most. As a third-party candidate, he'll attract people who are not crazy about either President Trump or President Biden. This much, however, is for sure: These voters feel a very passionate loathing of one or the other. There's a danger that in voting for RFK, they'll be “throwing away their vote” and helping the candidate they like least. Because they can only vote once, they don't do this.
Just so that we're clear on the logic here, this pertains to all sorts of elections. Let’s say you're on a flight and the flight attendant says that everyone will get free ice cream. There are three flavors—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry—but only one will win the election. It’s a good bet that the lovers of chocolate are against vanilla and vice versa. Both sides are reasonably sure that strawberry cannot win. Even if both sides like strawberry, they'll vote for one of the other two. It defaults to a contest between two flavors because only one can win.
The history of American elections bears this out. Third parties have made only temporary inroads, but they've never built a permanent presence. They can be disruptive, but it's usually with the result of helping one or another candidate from one of the two parties.
To be sure, there are complicating factors in this strange political moment. These aren't normal times. It seems like there's a growing movement to push President Biden out of the running. The impeachment can't happen soon enough, but Vice President Kamala Harris is a joke.
Does that mean that California Gov. Gavin Newsom will jump in? Perhaps, in which case, the exclusion of Mr. Kennedy is more untenable. Indeed, Mr. Kennedy would seem like a natural person to slip into the nomination. Mr. Newsom is a lizard person for most people in this country.
Maybe it's time for a dramatic change in American public life. It’s also not crazy that Duverger’s law wouldn't pertain if enough people were unified behind him. If so, we’ll have to modify the law: Even in a winner-take-all system, if the people are furious enough, an insurgent outsider can completely crush even the most impenetrable systems.
Indeed, this is my fantasy, even if our times have had a tendency to wreck hopes. So who knows? Maybe these times are truly different.