In a stunning move, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced on Monday that he is dropping his Democratic primary bid and will instead run for president as an independent candidate in 2024. Kennedy’s decision adds complexity to what is gearing up to be a fierce rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
Speaking to hundreds of supporters gathered at Philadelphia’s symbolic Independence Mall, the longtime environmental lawyer and prominent anti-vaccine activist declared he would “declare his independence” from the Democratic Party and forge his own path to the White House.
Kennedy accused the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of “rigging” the nomination process against him by refusing to hold debates and giving South Carolina the early primary spot over Iowa and New Hampshire. He said these actions left him no choice but to leave the party and seek the presidency as an independent.
“If they jam me, I’m going to look at every option,” Kennedy told the cheering crowd. “Today I declare my independence!”
The dramatic move by Kennedy, a scion of one of America’s most famous Democratic families, reflects growing disenchantment with the two-party system among some voters. Polls indicate Kennedy has better favorability ratings among Republicans than Democrats, but it remains unclear whether he can attract enough GOP support to mount a viable independent challenge.
Kennedy will likely need to peel away voters from both Biden and Trump to have a shot at winning the White House. So far, allies of the two frontrunners have dismissed Kennedy as a fringe candidate unlikely to gain much traction. The DNC responded to Kennedy’s announcement with an eye roll emoji, signaling they do not view him as a serious contender.
But Kennedy does have a loyal following among some independents, anti-establishment voters across the political spectrum who see him as an authentic truth-teller not beholden to any party. Several supporters at Monday’s rally told reporters they have voted Republican and Democratic in the past but want an alternative in 2024.
“He tells it how it is,” said Julia Hill, 23, of New Jersey. “He doesn’t sound like a politician.”
Brent Snyder, a disabled veteran from Philadelphia, said he voted for Trump previously but has grown dissatisfied with the GOP’s direction. “I think right now [Trump] has more baggage than his country needs,” he explained.
Kennedy joins a growing field of independent and third-party candidates mounting outside challenges to the two-party duopoly in 2024. Last week, progressive activist Cornel West ended his Green Party presidential bid to run as an independent. The centrist group No Labels is also working to get an unnamed independent candidate on ballots nationwide.
Kennedy’s Unorthodox Alliance Building
While Kennedy has long identified as a liberal Democrat, in recent years he has cultivated close ties to far-right figures and groups by promoting unfounded anti-vaccine claims and conspiracy theories. He appeared on channels run by Sandy Hook hoaxer Alex Jones and spoke at Christian nationalist events organized by former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn.
These unorthodox alliances have fueled speculation that Kennedy may peel away right-wing voters from Trump. Anti-vaccine groups allied with Kennedy have openly advocated for him to leave the Democratic Party and run as an outsider candidate.
But Kennedy’s main issue is not traditional right-wing fare. He rose to prominence as an environmental lawyer, advocating for clean water protections and leading Riverkeeper, a nonprofit focused on pollution. He frequently invokes the legacies of his father, former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and uncle, President John F. Kennedy.
And Kennedy maintains staunchly liberal views on issues like climate change, corporate accountability, and economic justice — stances that may limit his appeal among conservatives. His ability to straddle left and right without alienating either remains untested.
Legal Controversies Could Prove Thorny
While Kennedy touts his background as a lawyer, his organization Children’s Health Defense is currently engaged in a lawsuit that could undermine his credibility. The group is suing several media outlets, including the AP, for allegedly violating antitrust laws by working to identify medical misinformation.
Kennedy took a leave of absence from Children’s Health Defense to run for president but remains one of the attorneys on the lawsuit. The case centers around efforts by media groups to flag false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines. Kennedy has frequently spread COVID and vaccine misinformation that contradicts scientific consensus.
The lawsuit exposes tensions around Kennedy’s candidacy. He aims to cast himself as a bold truth-teller, but embraces many fringe theories that do not withstand scrutiny. With media groups challenging the lawsuit’s premise, Kennedy’s legal advocacy could turn into a liability on the campaign trail.
Trailing Badly in Early Polls
While Kennedy hopes to shake up the 2024 race, early polls suggest he faces an uphill fight. Surveys consistently show him garnering only around 2–4% support nationally if he runs as an independent. Roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans view him favorably.
Without a clear base in either party, Kennedy would need to expand his appeal substantially to play spoiler. Most analysts believe the bulk of his support would come at Biden’s expense rather than Trump’s if Kennedy gains any traction. But so far he looks unlikely to attract more than a sliver of protest votes.
Kennedy may aim to raise his profile through media appearances and participatation in the fall debates. But securing a spot on the debate stage will require hitting 15% in reputable national polls — a number Kennedy has fallen well short of so far. Being frozen out of the debates would severely limit his reach and viability.
An Uphill Battle, But Poised to Shake Up 2024 Race
While Kennedy remains a long-shot, his independent bid reflects rising anti-establishment sentiment among voters seeking alternatives to partisan duopoly in 2024. His famous family name, media savvy, and outsider appeal could still impact the race at the margins if disaffected voters rally around his campaign.
But Kennedy faces huge obstacles to gain traction and erode support from Trump or Biden in a significant way. He will need to defend his embrace of fringe views and navigate ongoing lawsuits. And early polling suggests profound skepticism across the political spectrum about his viability.
Regardless of Kennedy’s ultimate impact, his break with the Democratic Party spotlights a restless electorate hungry for something different. Fed up with the two-party system, Kennedy aims to give voice to those seeking an independent path forward. His candidacy promises to shake up the 2024 campaign and force both Biden and Trump to contend with voices outside the duopoly. Love him or hate him, RFK Jr.’s declaration of independence ensures the road to the White House will take some unpredictable turns.