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RFK Jr.'s Campaign Prepares for a Pivotal Moment

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. visits the First Baptist Church Food Pantry in New York City, on Feb. 17, 2024. Credit - John Nacion—Getty Images

Link Lauren, a 25-year-old senior adviser on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s presidential campaign, has gotten used to bringing a backpack to his candidate’s events. Supporters tend to come up and press literature into his hands: printed-out medical studies they found online, books about the FBI, environmental reports. He dutifully stows them in his bag, promising the campaign will get back to them.

"I'll leave an event with a backpack full of random books," says Lauren, a TikTok influencer who used to cover the British royal family and was asked to join Kennedy's campaign last year after staffers noticed his political videos covering Kennedy and criticizing Biden. "It's a very interesting crowd. Some people get emotional. There's nothing like our events."

In 2024, there’s nothing like the Kennedy campaign—a bizarre, freewheeling effort that has capitalized on broad dissatisfaction with both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Kennedy often polls in double digits, positioning him as potentially the most popular third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992—if he can manage to qualify for key state ballots. In a Wall Street Journal poll in December, almost 1 in 5 Americans said they would vote for a third-party candidate in 2024.

"The one thing everyone in America can agree on is that they don't want this rematch between Trump and Biden," says Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, the candidate’s daughter-in-law, who took over as campaign manager last October, days after he abandoned his bid for the Democratic nomination to run as an independent.

Read More: Inside the Very Online Campaign of RFK Jr.

Now, after weeks of teasing attention-grabbing vice presidential contenders, including New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the scion of America’s most famous political dynasty will announce his running mate on March 26. In conversations with TIME, campaign staffers repeatedly suggested that Kennedy, 70, will pick a younger person, someone who will represent the future and not the past. One senior staffer says Kennedy’s pick is someone who is aware of the technical challenges facing the country, including the rise of AI. Speculation has recently centered on Nicole Shanahan, the wealthy ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, who could play a critical role in continuing to finance his campaign. The campaign declined to confirm these reports, only saying the choice is “truly worthy of the American people's faith in them.”

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. hosts a fireside chat with rapper and producer Eric B. at The Gentleman’s Factory in New York City, on Feb. 18, 2024.<span class="copyright">John Nacion—Getty Images</span>
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. hosts a fireside chat with rapper and producer Eric B. at The Gentleman’s Factory in New York City, on Feb. 18, 2024.John Nacion—Getty Images

From the beginning, the Kennedy campaign has been difficult to characterize. The candidate has leaned into sepia-tinged nostalgia to attract Baby Boomers, shelling out $7 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl which recreated John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 ad, and ended with his nephew’s face superimposed on the former Democratic President. The campaign tells TIME it also plans to launch its “Viva Kennedy” Latino outreach campaign, which is named and modeled after the former President's historic win in 1960. But it has also nurtured an eclectic coalition of right-wing fans, New Age influencers, anti-vaccine activists, and Silicon Valley pundits.

The campaign is staffed by roughly 100 people, according to press secretary Stefanie Spear, many of whom are longtime friends and colleagues from Kennedy’s past careers as an environmental activist and anti-vaccine crusader. Others, like Lauren, were recruited from social media, or former fans who clicked with Kennedy at a private event. (Staffers who successfully recruit 5-10 others to the cause are recognized with denim jackets lauding them as RFK Jr. "lamplighters" and "flamekeepers.") Many seem to have a direct line to the candidate, who is active on group chats and likes to dictate messages using Siri. “I talk to Bobby either through text or on the phone maybe nine or 10 times a day,” says Lauren.

Read More: The Podcast Campaigners.

In campaign speeches, Kennedy casts himself as “the bowsprit of a ship that is going to cut through the armada of secrecy, corruption, and lies." His events—and the comment sections of his videos—have become gathering places for the conspiracy-minded to discuss a broad range of grievances against corporations, the “deep state,” government agencies, alleged censorship by Big Tech, and shadowy plots targeting both the candidate and themselves. A number of Kennedy’s younger supporters discovered him through his appearances on podcasts—more than 50 so far, according to Spear—many of which have run several hours, including high-profile conversations with Joe Rogan (which ran almost three hours) and on the "All In" podcast (which ran more than two).

Kennedy’s anticipated VP announcement comes amid a months-long push to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, most of which require a running mate. It’s a costly and legally complex effort, which the campaign estimates will cost more than $15 million and will require gathering more than 900,000 signatures nationwide.

Kennedy had more than $4.8 million left in his campaign account as of the end of January, according to recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. American Values 2024, the super PAC backing Kennedy, told TIME it has gathered “more than the required number of signatures for RFK Jr.'s ballot access in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and South Carolina.”

Pins and other merchandise in support of Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on display during a voter rally at St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Feb. 10, 2024.<span class="copyright">Emily Elconin—Getty Images</span>
Pins and other merchandise in support of Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on display during a voter rally at St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Feb. 10, 2024.Emily Elconin—Getty Images

There are signs that the Biden campaign is taking seriously the threat of losing votes to Kennedy. The Democratic National Committee has reportedly hired a team of operatives to craft a strategy to counter Kennedy and other third-party candidates by closely monitoring any breaches in election law. In a federal complaint filed last month, DNC officials accused American Values 2024 of illegally coordinating with the candidate to get him on the ballot in several states. “This is an effort to subvert our election laws and prop up a stalking horse in R.F.K. Jr.,” DNC adviser Lis Smith told reporters in February, arguing the Super PAC’s petition effort to get Kennendy on ballots across the country amounted to an in-kind contribution.

The candidate’s own family has recoiled at RFK Jr.’s bid. "It's difficult to speak out against a family member," the candidate's cousin, Stephen Kennedy Smith, wrote in a LinkedIn post. "He is now the greatest risk to re-elect Donald Trump, and that is a mistake we cannot afford to make."

Members of the Kennedy clan are reportedly gearing up to spend time on the campaign trail for Biden in states where Kennedy is on the ballot. On St. Patrick's Day, several members of the family posted a photo at the White House, with a grinning Biden kneeling in the middle. "President Biden, you make the world better," Kerry Kennedy, RFK Jr.'s sister, posted alongside the photo on Twitter. The next day, Maria Shriver, Kennedy's cousin, joined the Bidens at the White House for the President's signing of a new executive order on women's health.

For now, Kennedy’s supporters are putting their hope in their candidate’s VP pick to give the campaign a boost. “I'm very excited for whoever he ends up making his choice, it’s going to raise a lot of buzz going forward,” says Justin Rezvani, a 35-year-old social media entrepreneur who says he supports Kennedy for his views on cryptocurrency and censorship. “Based on how the campaign is run, my instinct tells me it's going to be somebody that surprises everyone in the country.”

Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com.