The Big Hurdle Between RFK Jr. and the Debate Stage (It’s Not a Poll)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. listens to questions from the press after a campaign event in Aurora, Colo. on May 19, 2024. (Rachel Woolf/The New York Times)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. listens to questions from the press after a campaign event in Aurora, Colo. on May 19, 2024. (Rachel Woolf/The New York Times)

President Joe Biden’s campaign has been clear: He will debate former President Donald Trump only one-on-one.

That hasn’t stopped Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from trying.

As the deadline to qualify for the June 27 debate draws closer, Kennedy, who is running for president as an independent, has said he’s confident he can still meet host CNN’s requirements, while ramping up accusations that the news organization rigged the process. Last week, in an escalation of his pressure campaign on the host network, he filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against CNN, saying that it had colluded with the Biden and Trump campaigns to exclude Kennedy from the debate in violation of campaign finance law.

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“CNN adopted criteria that they believed would keep me off the stage,” Kennedy said in an interview that aired last week, adding that the network was also interpreting those criteria in a way that “weights them towards the candidates they want on the stage.”

CNN has denied the accusations. But Kennedy’s rivals do have a mutual interest in boxing him out, as The New York Times previously reported. Kennedy is drawing support away from both Biden and Trump, and both campaigns are concerned about the potential for him to swing the election in key battleground states.

In at least one respect, Kennedy has reason for optimism. Recent polling has positioned Kennedy closer to qualifying for the debate stage than any third-party candidate in more than three decades. Kennedy must earn at least 15% support in four approved national polls by June 20 to qualify for the debate.

He currently has three of those qualifying polls, one from CNN, one from Quinnipiac University and one from Marquette University Law School.

But there’s probably a bigger hurdle. For an independent or third-party candidate to appear onstage with Biden and Trump, that candidate “must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency,” according to the rules published by CNN. In other words, Kennedy must officially be on the ballot in enough states that — if he won them all — the vote total would amount to a majority in the Electoral College.

Kennedy currently has less than a third of that threshold, according to an analysis by the Times, and CNN’s June 20 deadline has put his campaign on a ticking clock.

Ballot access has been central to Kennedy’s independent bid from the beginning, and his campaign embarked early on a sprawling bid to qualify for the November ballot in all 50 states. His team has spent millions on consultants, paid petitioners and aggressive legal action — deploying a multipart strategy of gathering signatures to meet state requirements and wooing small political parties that already have ballot access to adopt Kennedy as their standard-bearer.

But another part of the campaign’s strategy in some cases has been to deliberately slow-walk the filing of paperwork with election officials, in order to give his opponents less time to challenge his petitions, the Times reported. Although some states give candidates until August or September to file their ballot petitions, CNN’s deadline to qualify for the debate stage is a week before the event.

Stefanie Spear, a spokesperson for the Kennedy campaign, said Monday that the campaign was planning to file ballot petitions in other states in the coming weeks, in an effort to qualify for the debate. But CNN has previously said that “the mere application for ballot access” does not count as being on the ballot in that state.

Kennedy’s sophisticated ballot access operation has, so far, officially gotten him on the ballot in only six states — California, Utah, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Michigan and Delaware — totaling 89 electoral college votes. That leaves him with only about a third of the votes needed, and racing against the clock to make up the difference with a little more than two weeks to go.

The campaign says he has qualified for the ballot in 11 other states, where it has filed petitions — often with tens of thousands of signatures, or the backing of a minor party — but where its status has not yet been confirmed by the state: Nebraska, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, New Hampshire, Iowa, New York and New Jersey.

If all of those additional states were approved, that would be 149 more votes, bringing Kennedy’s total to 238. But there is no guarantee that will happen — and certainly no guarantee that it will happen in time for the June 27 debate.

State officials could block the effort, citing problems with the petitions, or the Democratic or Republican parties could take action against the campaign.

On Monday, the Kennedy campaign sued Nevada, where state officials had said in March that the campaign’s ballot petition was invalid because it had been submitted earlier this year without a vice-presidential running mate.

The Kennedy campaign has complained that the ballot access requirement to participate had set an unfair double standard for Kennedy, asserting that neither Biden nor Trump would qualify under those rules because they have not been officially nominated by their respective parties. Amaryllis Fox, Kennedy’s campaign manager, has said that “the 270 threshold is nonsensical.”

In a statement, CNN rejected that framing, saying that “as the presumptive nominees of their parties both Biden and Trump will satisfy” the ballot access requirement, adding that “as an independent candidate, under applicable laws RFK Jr. does not.”

Spear said that she expected Kennedy’s ballot petitions in New York and Texas to be approved by the June 20 deadline, and that the campaign was not concerned about legal challenges to its ballot access operation. A spokesperson for the New York state Board of Elections also said Monday that a decision on Kennedy’s ballot access was not likely to come until late summer. The petition, submitted last week, has been met with a dozen challenges from residents, state records show. Those challenges, which will be detailed in filings due later this week, will have to be reviewed before the petition is approved or rejected.

One route to quick ballot access is through the nomination of minor parties, which is how Kennedy got on the ballot in California and Michigan.

But even that is not foolproof: Kennedy had been nominated last month by the Reform Party — the party founded by Ross Perot — which the campaign celebrated as its ticket to getting on the ballot in Florida. But the Reform Party’s status as a registered political party in Florida was revoked last year because it failed to comply with a state audit. The party has applied to be reinstated, but it is unclear when or if that application will be approved by the state.

In most other states, there are no available minor parties for Kennedy to run with.

The polling requirement could still be an issue for Kennedy, too, as the clock ticks down.

In addition to polls from CNN, Quinnipiac University and Marquette University Law School, CNN will also accept polls from ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, Monmouth University, NBC News, The New York Times/Siena College, NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as long as Kennedy shows at least 15% support. But it is difficult to predict if and when Kennedy could get a fourth qualifying poll, in part because his support varies so wildly among the approved polls.

The Times’ national poll from April, for example, showed Kennedy at just 2% support, while the Marquette poll in May had him at 17%.

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