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Would Robert F. Kennedy Jr be more of a spoiler for Biden or Trump in the debates?

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump are set to face off in June for the first 2024 presidential debate, but experts warn that Biden may be at more of a disadvantage than Trump if independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also qualifies to be on stage.

Some critics have warned that Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and vaccine opponent, could act as a spoiler in the general election by taking away votes from the two frontrunners. Both the Trump and Biden campaign have also eyed Kennedy as a political threat.

But should he join the debate stage, political scientists and experts argue that Kennedy, as an anti-establishment figure, is likely to interfere with Biden’s message to voters and make for a much more raucous debate that in some ways could help Trump.

To qualify for the first debate, hosted by CNN, a candidate must “appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote thresholds to win the presidency” and receive at least 15% in four qualifying national polls prior to the eligibility deadline, according to a press release.

So far, Kennedy’s campaign said it has achieved ballot access in six states, though his campaign is moving to expand that initiative elsewhere. He also averages less than 15% in most national polls. It’s unclear whether he will meet the criteria by mid-June.

Even so, “Biden wants this election to be a referendum on Trump. And so when you put a third candidate in there, it’s not as easy a narrative to do,” said Aaron Kall, director of the debate program for the University of Michigan dand author of the book Debating the Donald, which analyzed Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential primary forums.

Biden could face trouble with Kennedy 

The only time a third party candidate was involved in a presidential debate was in 1992, said Alan Schroeder, a professor emeritus of journalism and presidential elections expert at Northeastern University.

The candidate, Ross Perot, “in particular was able to effectively use the debates to position himself as an interesting, unorthodox candidate who was nothing like the traditional politicians who shared the stage,” he said, adding that he thinks Kennedy doesn’t have nearly “that level of talent as a communicator or the intelligence to pull off a winning performance.”

Even so, experts argue that Kennedy still has the ability to act as a bigger spoiler for Biden than Trump.

“RFK (Jr.)’s presence in the debate would almost certainly work against Biden because both he and Trump would represent chaos candidates, that is, candidates who were anti-establishment, which would paint Biden as the status quo,” said Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of political science and national security, at the University of New Haven. “And the status quo always has more loud critics than it does supporters.”

Kennedy has previously criticized Biden for being a “much worse threat to democracy” than Trump and called out the Biden administration for working with social media companies to limit the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.  He’s also attacked Biden for his “his public gaffes and his unwillingness to publicly debate and have unscripted conversations with voters.”

Schmidt said that the bulk of Kennedy’s supporters are under the age of 45, so he may draw from constituents that tend to vote Democratic.

He said that Kennedy “could create so much generalized antipathy toward the status quo, and hence Biden, that he could keep Biden supporters from voting, creating a sort of ‘none of the above’ effect or push enough voters toward the anti-establishment candidate, Trump.”

Kennedy has also downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, and both Biden and the Democrats have been making a lot of that moment by pushing themselves as the “party of democracy,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

Kennedy’s participation “could undercut that central message of Biden,” Reeher said.

How about for Trump?

But Kennedy could also pose a problem for Trump on the debate stage, experts said.

“There is reason to suspect that Kennedy will draw more from Trump than from Biden. He is most famous for his penchant for conspiracy theories, and that’s a constituency that overlaps a lot with the MAGA crowd,” said David Greenberg, a history professor at Rutgers University.

Greenberg also added that “Biden wants to frame the choice as ‘Me or Trump.’ That one-on-one framing reminds people of Trump’s chaotic and – some would say – destructive term as president. It’s a direct contrast that plays in Biden’s favor.”

Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said that Kennedy has more recently campaigned heavily to attract votes from Republicans who are seeking an alternative to Trump.

Trump, however, in an interview on Scripps News Thursday said that he has “no problem” debating Kennedy.

“I would have no problem if he got whatever the threshold is,” Trump said in the interview. “But he’s very low and seems to be heading in the other direction, in the wrong direction.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: RFK Jr. will be a bigger spoiler for Biden in debates, experts warn

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