May 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

RFK Jr.'s path to the June debate

Illustration of three podiums on a background that turns from blue to red, the middle podium is smaller and has a spotlight on it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has a shot to make the June presidential debate, but the clock is ticking on two challenging thresholds.

Why it matters: He would be the first independent presidential candidate to make the debate stage in 32 years — and just the third in presidential debate history.

  • Kennedy has the financial support, aggressive ballot access plan and strong polling to make his long-shot endeavor a fight.
  • Kennedy has blasted Biden and Trump over the June debate, accusing them of "colluding" against his campaign to "avoid discussion of their eight years of mutual failure."

Zoom in: Instead of having until September to get on enough state ballots to qualify for a debate, Kennedy now has about a month.

  • Former President Trump and President Biden agreed earlier this month to forgo the traditional fall debates held by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
  • Ross Perot, the last independent presidential candidate to make the debate stage, didn't qualify for the ballot in all 50 states until Sept. 18, 1992, per CNN. (He briefly suspended his campaign from July to September).

Between the lines: To qualify, Kennedy has to hit at least 15% in four national polls that meet CNN's standards and achieve ballot access in enough states to have a chance at winning 270 electoral votes.

  • Kennedy, polling higher than any independent candidate since Perot, appears to have met the polling requirement in three polls.
  • He received 16% among registered voters in two polls from last month that meet CNN's requirement, CNN/SSRS and Quinnipiac University.
  • Kennedy drew 17% in a Marquette Law School Poll of registered voters out this week, another CNN-approved poll.
  • He has until June 20 to qualify in a fourth poll.

Zoom out: Kennedy's campaign has launched a robust ballot access plan to get him on ballots before the election, but not by June 27.

  • Five states confirmed to ABC News that Kennedy had qualified for the ballot — Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma and Utah, totaling 35 electoral votes.
  • The Kennedy campaign says it has submitted signatures for ballot access in seven states, totaling 139 electoral votes. It has collected enough signatures for eight other states, the campaign said.

The intrigue: The secretary of state offices still have to validate many of the signatures, a process that is out of Kennedy's control.

  • Signature collection isn't due in many states until late summer, per Ballot Access News, so there's no way to know how long verification could take.
  • Kennedy campaign director Amaryllis Fox wrote on the social media platform X earlier this month that enforcing a 270 electoral college threshold before September is "nonsensical."
  • "Nonetheless, thanks to the exceptional dedication of our tens of thousands of volunteers across the country, we are in a position to meet their criteria. And we shall do so."

What to watch: Kennedy's ballot access mission has gotten a boost from the strong financial support of his running mate, Nicole Shanahan.

  • Shanahan, a lawyer who is the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, has given $10 million to their campaign.
  • That's on top of the $4 million she gave to the super PAC supporting Kennedy's campaign that ran an ad during the Super Bowl.

Go deeper: RFK Jr. becomes presidential debate X factor

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