Apr 2, 2024 - Business

Conservative media sours on RFK Jr. as an independent

Minutes spent mentioning Robert F. Kennedy, select cable channels
Data: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer; Note: Each mention of R.F.K. or Robert F. Kennedy is treated as one second; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Right-wing media has abruptly shifted its volume and tone of coverage of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. now that he’s running as an Independent instead of as a Democrat.

Why it matters: Despite the Kennedy name, RFK Jr. is taking votes from former President Donald Trump as well as from President Biden, polls show.

Driving the news: An analysis of data pulled from the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer shows mentions of Kennedy by Fox News fell sharply after the environmental lawyer-turned politico declared his candidacy as an Independent last October.

  • When Kennedy was running against Joe Biden in the Democratic primary last year, mentions of Kennedy on Fox News were more than four times higher than on CNN and MSNBC.
  • Now, Fox News covers Kennedy approximately as much as CNN does.

Since he declared his independent run in October, on-air mentions of Kennedy on Fox News roughly halved through February 2024.

  • Similar trend lines can be observed with The New York Post, which published 70 stories tagged to Kennedy's name between his candidacy announcement in April to his party switch in October, compared to 53 between his party switch and the end of March.

Prominent conservative commentators also abruptly switched from friendly to hostile after Kennedy went independent.

Charlie Kirk, the founder of the young conservative group Turning Point USA and podcast host, had a similar transformation.

  • Last summer, Kirk wrote that "RFK Jr. is special" and "continues to outclass and outsmart his Democrat detractors."
  • Kirk hosted Kennedy on his show in December, but has also been more critical, writing: "If left unaddressed, RFK Jr. will grant Biden another four years."
  • Kirk told Axios: "I like RFK as a person, and I respect him, but he's also a liberal Democrat at heart."

The intrigue: Conservative media's outsized coverage of Kennedy in the early stage of his campaign, as he challenged Biden, may not have done the GOP or Trump any favors, as it boosted Kennedy's name recognition  among their voters.

  • As a Democrat, RFK Jr.'s primary challenge had the potential to hurt Biden's re-election campaign, as polls showed him drawing significant support in some early states.
  • Polls show a significant portion of RFK Jr.'s support now that he is an independent comes from people who would otherwise support Trump, although he still tends to take more voters away from Biden.

Between the lines: Mentions on Fox News and other cable networks spiked last week when Kennedy announced entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan as his running mate.

  • That far surpassed any other RFK coverage over the past year, with the exception of when he appeared before Congress amid drama around his comments that COVID-19 may have been "ethnically targeted" to spare Jewish people.
  • A sizable amount of recent coverage was boosted by rumors that Kennedy would select New York Jets football star Aaron Rodgers as his possible running mate.

Yes, but: Even though coverage compared to other networks has slowed, conservative-leaning media hasn't ignored Kennedy altogether. Fox News and Newsmax both interviewed the presidential hopeful last month.

The big picture: Networks have historically paid far less attention to third-party candidates, but Kennedy's name combined with his initial primary challenge to President Biden has drawn outsized attention to his bid.

  • For example, Cornel West has received hardly any cable news coverage since announcing his presidential run last Junefirst with the Green Party. then as an Independent.

What to watch: Kennedy is focusing more attention on new-age media channels as a way to offset any lack of mainstream coverage.

  • Kennedy has one of the largest followings on TikTok among all U.S. politicians, Axios' Erin Doherty notes.
  • He has made a point to appear frequently on podcasts in his bid to attract younger voters.
  • His contrarian positions have earned him favor with some Silicon Valley leaders, who have promoted his brand to their followings online.
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