How RFK Jr. Is Seizing on Biden’s Debate Nightmare

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

For weeks, independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. railed against the first presidential debate.

CNN, the debate’s host, determined that Kennedy had not qualified for the ballot in enough states to appear on stage. As their party’s presumptive nominees, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will qualify for the ballot later this summer. Kennedy’s campaign filed an FEC complaint against CNN, and even threatened legal action against everyone at the company involved in debate planning.

But Kennedy may have won the debate without even showing up.

Biden’s performance was widely panned, even by members of his own party, for his hoarse voice and trains of thought that appeared to go off the tracks. Though Trump claimed victory, he peddled numerous falsehoods including on immigration and abortion.

However, Kennedy is taking advantage of the discontent by focusing most of his fire on just one of them.

“We have 341 million people in this country and to think those are the best two candidates the political parties can come up with is depressing,” Kennedy said in a press release after the debate.

“Last night was a disaster for President Biden,” Kennedy’s statement continued. “I think people saw how frail he was and even the hardcore Democrats have lost faith that he can even win the election or more importantly, that he can run the country. He seemed very confused. It’s scary to think that he’s going to get the call at 3 a.m., maybe, that we all dread, and he has six minutes to make a decision that will affect the lives of everybody on this planet.”

Asked for additional details about Kennedy’s reaction to the debate, the campaign pointed The Daily Beast back to the press release.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. addresses the Libertarian Party's national convention in Washington, U.S., May 24, 2024.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. addresses the Libertarian Party's national convention in Washington, U.S., May 24, 2024.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Both parties have fretted that Kennedy’s candidacy could siphon votes away from them, but there has been plenty of argument over whether his independent bid will hurt Biden or Trump more. Kennedy’s comments about last night’s debate suggest he sees Biden as its biggest loser.

Reached for comment, a Biden campaign aide did not address concerns about Biden’s age and ability to think on his feet, but shared that the campaign brought in $14 million on Thursday and into Friday morning. ActBlue, the online fundraising platform for Democrats, also shared on X that it raised nearly $22 million from small-dollar donors on June 27, making debate day ActBlue’s biggest fundraising day of the cycle.

The Kennedy campaign did not address a question from The Daily Beast about how debate night impacted RFK Jr.’s fundraising. But American Values, the big-money super PAC supporting Kennedy, did a victory dance.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” American Values’ treasurer, Tony Lyons, wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Everyone sees this as a game changer. It’s clear that Biden is bi-done and anyone who doesn’t want Trump to be their president recognizes now that a vote for Bobby Kennedy is a vote for Bobby Kennedy. He’s the only candidate who can beat Trump.”

On Friday morning, a new filing with the Federal Election Commission showed that American Values launched a big messaging push in support of the candidate on Thursday; the report of independent expenditures noted the PAC was spending nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for nationwide ads on X, as well as $121,000 worth of national newspaper ads in USA Today.

According to American Values, its ads on X—which say it began #therealdebate—were viewed by 36 million people and drove viewers to a 30-minute video about Kennedy. The X ads, along with the PAC’s USA Today ones, invited voters to “join the rebellion.”

The FEC filing also listed $7,500 in new spending for video production on Friday.

What Grumbling RFK Jr. Had to Say During His Solo ‘Debate’

During an MSNBC hit about the debate, Kennedy continued to go after the president, promising that he “would take a spoiler pledge with Biden.” In October, Kennedy said, whichever of the two men polling finds is less likely to defeat Trump should drop out of the race.

FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average currently has Biden and Trump neck-and-neck, with the former president slightly ahead at 41.4 percent compared to the current president’s 40.5 percent. Kennedy is way behind at 9 percent, and isn’t doing much better in polls of individual swing states.

But Kennedy has drawn some interest from constituencies Democrats have traditionally counted on for robust support, like young people, African Americans, and Latino voters. As debate reactions poured into reporters’ inboxes Thursday night and Friday morning, many of the most disaffected came from these groups. Still, not all the reactions point in the same direction. A Univision focus group of undecided Latino voters, for instance, showed that some were more supportive of Biden after the debate.

The week before the debate, a Democratic National Committee memo noted that Kennedy’s favorability rating has been on the decline. It will take time for pollsters to determine if that trend continues afterwards.

"The more voters learn about RFK Jr. the less they like him,” wrote DNC spokesman Matt Corridoni in a statement to The Daily Beast.

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