Democrats and Republicans alike are watching with concern amid signs that voters are gravitating toward independent candidates as frustration with the two-party system reaches a boil.
In the past couple of weeks alone, two high-profile insurgent candidates — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West — announced they were changing their status to independent.
The moves reflect the extent to which certain politicians are aiming to harness voter antipathy toward the Democratic and Republican parties, a development that poses major challenges for next year’s likely White House nominees, President Biden and former President Trump.
No candidate has beaten that drum louder than Kennedy, who became an independent after a months-long slog to capture Democratic support in the shadow primary against Biden.
The environmental lawyer has become a sympathetic and captivating figure on the right, sharing some anti-vax rhetoric and gripes about what he sees as political establishment systems corroding the country.
“He’s got higher approval ratings among Republicans than some of the candidates that are on the Republican stage running for president,” said Sawyer Hackett, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to Julián Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary under former President Obama.
“All of these Republican podcasts and Fox News and all the right-wing voices were lifting him up because they wanted to hurt Joe Biden,” Hackett said, so much so that “they created support within the Republican Party for him.”
Kennedy’s announcement took aspects from the Democratic messaging, but leaned more heavily into Trump-style Republicanism, at times even evoking similar themes to Trump’s famous “American carnage” inauguration speech.
During an address in Philadelphia, he sought to present a new image of what a modern independent — ostensibly inspired by both conservatives and liberals — could mean under his campaign, including what he described as freedom from “tribal thinking” and “the reflex of having to take sides.”
“The right and the left are all mixed up anyhow,” he declared.
Mixed up as they are in Kennedy’s view, Democrats have noted he has consistently inched toward the right, but understand in a close election, anything could happen. Last week, the Conservative Political Action Committee announced he would appear as a speaker for one of its events, considered a cattle call for the party’s rising stars.
“RFK Jr.’s conspiracy theories appeal to some Republican voters, but not to Democrats,” said one Democratic strategist who serves in a leadership position at a progressive organization.
“After RFK Jr. claimed that COVID-19 was created to protect Jews and Chinese people, his favorability among Democrats plummeted, putting him in negative favorability territory,” the operative said. “Democrats have never bought into his conspiracy theories, but some Republican voters find his fringe stances appealing.”
While he’s received plenty of praise on the right, he has made an attempt to appeal to progressives who have grown disillusioned by the Biden administration. He’s taken some recent steps to prove his liberal bona fides, including by picketing with striking United Auto Workers at the General Motors plant in Swartz Creek, Mich., a major swing state.
In the early weeks of the campaign, most Democrats and Republicans shrugged him off as someone not worth paying attention to. His low polling didn’t give White House allies a reason to sweat, and Republicans also didn’t view him as a danger to their side.
But his new party affiliation has led both parties to fear that he could be a negative force in their respective goals of reelecting Biden or Trump. A leading Democratic fundraising platform and Republicans’ national party body both released materials the day he switched to an independent, a tacit acknowledgment that he’s now at least a factor in the race.
ActBlue, a top program for Democratic fundraising, solicited donations for the Biden campaign off of Kennedy’s announcement, sending a text message to supporters directing them to, “Give now to defeat RFK!”
And the Republican National Committee sent a rapid-fire list of “23 reasons” to oppose Kennedy timed to his speech, attempting to paint him as a “typical Democrat politician.” The first red flag for the right: He voted for Biden in 2020.
But Kennedy isn’t the only figure seizing on concerns about the two-party system.
West, who has in the past enjoyed a warm reception among progressives and even moderate Democrats for his work on racial equality, also made a surprise change from the Green Party to an independent, preempting Kennedy.
His prior ties to the People’s Party and Green Party evoked mixed feelings from Democrats, who either saw him as helping Trump from the fringes or appreciated his liberal firepower. Increasingly, even more voices on the left have been critical of his bid because of how desperate they are to keep Trump out of office.
“If you call yourself a leftist or a progressive or a liberal or a Democrat and polling shows that you’re hurting the Democratic nominee’s chances of defeating a fascist, violent man who orchestrated a coup, I cannot see how you can continue to call yourself a leftist,” said Hackett.
“I think he’s going to have to take a hard look at what his marginal support does to the electorate and whether it contributes to electing Donald Trump,” he predicted. “Once he does that and has decided that OK, it looks like I’m not really helping prevent a fascist from becoming president again, he’ll step out of the way.”
“I do not know if you can say the same about RFK Jr.,” Hackett added.
West is less nationally known than Kennedy, but his bid could nonetheless be consequential, particularly with working-class voters to whom he has tailored his populist message.
Kennedy and West have railed against the Democratic National Committee this cycle — and, unlike in 2016 when progressives close to Bernie Sanders shunned the party apparatus, they’re not entirely alone. Heading into 2024, the organization has greatly upset party members from both sides of the ideological spectrum by refusing to hold debates and surreptitiously reshuffling the primary calendar despite pushback from several states.
There has also been lingering anger among Democrats over the lack of a competitive primary for the 80-year-old president. On Wednesday evening, a new contender sought to remedy that. Leftist media personality Cenk Uygur threw his hat into the ring, opting to primary Biden instead of following Kennedy and West’s approach.
Uygur described his run for the nomination as “a crazy attempt to make a difference,” while tallying up Biden’s many perceived electoral weaknesses on air.
“If he leaves now, he’s a hero,” Uygur said, announcing his candidacy during a segment on The Young Turks, the progressive news program he founded.
Uygur, who was born in Istanbul, Turkey, most certainly will face questions about his status as an immigrant but has said he sees the Supreme Court coming down on his side if he is challenged over the “national born citizen” stipulation in the Constitution.
To fellow Democrats, it’s not Uygur’s bid that’s particularly alarming or unsettling. After all, author and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, another progressive, is also opposing Biden but has been ignored by the president’s closest allies.
Instead, what concerns them is that Uygur’s candidacy — and to a larger extent Kennedy and West — are a collective reflection of the voter angst over Biden, and the fear that the president’s accomplishments aren’t shining through to give them enough of a reason to vote for him again. The fact that other candidates are seizing on that, they argue, shows a longing for something else entirely.
Asked if West believes he has a better chance of winning as an independent rather than a Green Party candidate, he responded non-committedly.
“It is always difficult for a jazz man to play only in a party band,” he told The Hill in a text message after changing his party registration. “Though we must always put the people’s needs at the center of a campaign!”