INTERVIEW: The Party of the Third Part

By Reuvain Borchardt

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a campaign event in Royal Oak, Mich., April 21. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Pollster David Paleologos discusses the effect of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and other third-party candidates on the 2024 presidential race.

Paleologos is the founder and director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center (SUPRC) in Boston, which conducts polls on political races in Massachusetts and around the country, as well as on ballot measures and policy issues. Paleologos authored the SUPRC bellwether model in predicting political winners, a model that SUPRC says has an 85% success rate.

The SUPRC is rated in the top ten out of hundreds of polling companies analyzed by pollster-rating website 538.

Suffolk’s latest national presidential poll, released last week shows Donald Trump and Joe Biden tied at 37%, with RFK at 8%, independent Cornel West at 2%, the as-yet-unnamed Libertarian Party nominee at 2%, the Green Party’s Jill Stein at 1%, and 12% of voters undecided.

That he’s a Kennedy [laughs] and he’s not Biden or Trump. At this point, without having run a campaign ad by his committee — I’m not talking about the Super Bowl ad his PAC released — he hasn’t defined himself. It could be a problem if you don’t define yourself until it’s too late. But there’s very limited information out there about RFK. And that’s what makes his 8% interesting — that there isn’t a lot out there except the fact that he’s an alternative to Biden and Trump. 

That 8% for RFK is a starting point. Other polls show him in double digits. 

In order to win, he has to get to 35% or 36%. If he got to 20% in the fall, then you could see a snowball effect where people see a third-party candidate as really viable. We know from other polling that two-thirds of the public didn’t want a Biden-Trump rematch, and so that could accelerate his trajectory. However, if he stays in the single digits and flatlines, then his voters will probably repeat historical trends by rotating away from the third-party candidate and into the column of Biden or Trump.

In the case of Ross Perot and his 19% in 1992, it was more about his policies. Less so in the cases of other spoilers, like Ralph Nader in 2000, Jill Stein in 2016, and Jo Jorgenson in 2020, where it was just a protest vote. 

Third-party candidates made the difference not only in 2016 but in 2020 as well. A lot of people don’t realize that when Hillary Clinton lost the “Blue Wall states” of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016, Jill Stein received more votes in each of those states than Hillary lost by. 

And in 2020, the effect of a third-party candidate was even more pronounced. Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate, got far more votes in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia than Trump lost by. If Jorgensen wasn’t on the ballot in those states, those libertarian voters probably would have rotated to the Republican. And if Trump had won those three states, it would have been a 269-269 tie, and he would have been reelected, because it would have gone to a vote of the House, with each state delegation casting one vote, and Republicans had the majority of more state delegations than the Democrats did.

Pollster David Paleologos (Suffolk University Political Research Center_

There were so many more Jorgensen voters than what Trump lost by. And libertarians also stand for less government, private enterprise, letting people function without government intervention. That’s more of a Republican viewpoint than Democrat. So you’re never sure, but, like Green Party voters would otherwise rotate to Democrats, the probability of libertarian voters splitting disproportionately Republican is probably higher than the reverse.

Our job as educators is to make sure that young people understand the importance of voting, no matter who they vote for. A high percentage of voters getting engaged for a third-party candidate is, at least, engagement. 

People can say it’s a wasted vote because we really have a two-party system. And that’s true to some extent. But in our poll, for example, RFK was getting 13% of voters 18 to 34 years old. That tells me that young people aren’t married to a two-party system. They probably have only voted in two or three presidential elections, if at all. Maybe they voted for Barack Obama once. 

And today, young people are in flux with the protesting going on on college campuses. RFK is a non-Biden–Trump option that they are more comfortable with. And that’s why he’s showing up at such a high level in the polling.

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Freeland, Mich., May 1. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

It’s a mixed bag.

If you look at the two categories of voters that RFK scores well in, at least in our poll, it was young people at 13% and Hispanics at 14%. Those are two categories that Biden overwhelmingly carried in 2020. So if you just look at that metric, then you’d say RFK takes votes away from Biden, case closed. 

However, in the poll we also asked voters to describe their political viewpoint. And only 13% of RFK voters described their viewpoint as liberal or very liberal, but 27% described it as conservative or very conservative. Most RFK voters — 55% — are describing themselves as moderate. But the number of conservative is more than double the number of liberal, 27 to 13. By that metric alone, you’d say RFK takes votes away from Trump. 

That’s why I say it’s a mixed bag.

And it’ll depend on the state-by-state breakdown.

We won’t know the standing of the other third-party candidates until August, when the official certification takes place on the state ballots. So, if you asked me today, “Who’s on the Pennsylvania ballot besides Trump and Biden?” My answer is, “I don’t know.” And that’s why I say it depends on the state-by-state breakdown. If Cornel West and Jill Stein are on the ballot, RFK may get fewer votes, because some of those Biden protest votes might go to West or Stein. Similarly, if the Libertarian is on the Pennsylvania ballot, those Trump protest votes would vote Libertarian. But, we won’t know the full picture until we do the state-by-state polling starting in August.

RFK says he’s going to be on all 50 state ballots. 

He will not be on all 50 state ballots as an independent. He will be on some state ballots on the line of some other party that is an officially recognized party of a particular state. For example, I think it was just recently announced that he will be on the Michigan ballot on the Natural Law Party line. But his name will be on the ballot.

Stein’s and West’s voters both come off of Biden. The Democratic Party has said they need to keep RFK off the ballot with challenges. But the immediate threat to Biden, from what I can see, is Stein and West. Those are not a mixed bag, like RFK is. Those voters are very much Biden voters. 

Stein got arrested protesting with the pro-Palestinian protesters. So, if there are young people who normally would vote for Biden, but won’t vote for Biden because of the Israel-Hamas war, they may not vote for Trump either, but they could vote for Stein.

President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla., April 23. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

All those numbers go up among independents. Democrats and Republicans are accounted for; they don’t matter at this point, six months to go until Election Day. What matters is independents. And when you look at independents, Kennedy was getting 14%, the Libertarian was getting 4%, Stein 3% and West 2%. That’s a lot of votes being thrown around to different candidates among independents.

One question we asked was, how concerned are you that the campus demonstrations will end up in violence? Because we haven’t really seen a George Floyd-type violent protesting situation. Sixty-seven percent said they are very or somewhat concerned — and that included 67% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats. So, Democrats and Republicans are equally concerned about violence. 

We at Suffolk have our commencement exercises coming up soon, as do other colleges. None of us wants to see another Kent State. I lived through Kent State. I don’t want to see Kent State happen all over again. And I don’t think it will happen. But you never know. When 100 people assemble, no matter how organized the protest is, anything can happen, because people have their own personal experiences and predisposed biases. And so you just hope and pray that it’s not going to escalate to violence. But the wisdom of the crowd in this poll is telling us that there’s a high level of concern that there’ll be violence.

In terms of supporting or opposing the protest, only 19% of those polled say they support the protest. And 24% said they agreed with the protesters’ demands — though we didn’t identify the demands in the poll question — but they oppose the way the protesters are conducting themselves. Forty-six percent oppose the protests.

I can report what the survey found, but there’s no way to know going forward because it’s such a fluid situation right now in terms of ceasefire agreements and the like.

From what the poll says, there’s a significantly higher number of young people who say that they support the protests. That’s the problem for President Biden. Thirty-five percent of them said they support the protests, and another 27% said they agree with the demands of the protesters but oppose the way the protesters are conducting themselves. That 35% is a high number and needs to be figured out by the Biden team, because Biden won young people by over 20 points in 2020, and right now he’s only winning young people by 9. So if young people opt for Kennedy, West or Stein, that’s a vote for Trump. They don’t realize it, but that’s just the way the numbers work out. 

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader (R) speaks with Harvard University professor, author and civil-rights activist Cornel West after landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Monday, Nov. 6, 2000. On Election Day the following day, Nader likely took enough votes from Democrat Al Gore in Florida to have swung the election in favor of Republican George W. Bush. In 2024, West is mounting his own third-party run as an independent. (AP Photo/Amy E. Conn)

It depends on how he uses the Kennedys. One school of thought is that you have one or some of the Kennedys just working the swing states, so that those young voters, who may vote for Stein or RFK, go to Biden. That’s Biden’s secret weapon — to have so many articulate young Kennedys willing to go to bat for him. 

Once again, decades later, the Kennedy family, one way or the other, is going to have an impact on this election!

Yes, now it would seem less fringe.

Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

Third-party candidates are going to have a major impact on the election. 

We, as pollsters, are going to have a much clearer picture in August when we know who’s on the official ballots, so we can do some really granular modeling. 

In terms of who’s going to win, based on the polling that I’ve seen, right now, today’s snapshot in time, it looks like Biden wins the popular vote, and probably loses the Electoral College, like Hillary did in 2016. 

But there’s no way to know six months from now where things will be. 

Even if Trump wins Georgia and North Carolina, the states truly in play are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin. 

And then, kind of a monkey-wrench situation seeing that you’re asking a lot about RFK: What about Maine and Alaska, which use ranked-choice voting for the election? Nobody’s really talking about this now. But with ranked-choice voting, rather than simply choosing one candidate, people get to rank their candidates in order of preference. 

Let’s say in Alaska, Trump gets 45%, RFK gets 30%, and Biden gets 25% — RFK would win those Alaska electoral votes, because Biden voters will never pick Trump as a second choice. They’d pick a frog before picking Trump. So they would vote Biden first, then RFK second, and once Biden is knocked out, those votes would go to RFK.

So in essence — and this is where electoral engineering comes in — if Biden pushed RFK into the second spot in Alaska and Biden finished third, his voters would probably put RFK over the top in Alaska, and RFK, rather than Trump, would get Alaska’s electoral votes.

Similarly, in Maine, if Biden won by 10 points in the first ballot over RFK, Trump voters would put RFK over the top in Maine — because Trump voters would put RFK second on their ballot — and so RFK potentially could take electoral votes away from Biden. It’s a long shot, but anything is possible.

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