The Biden Campaign’s High-Powered Effort to Define R.F.K. Jr.

Pretty much every presidential election includes a smattering of third-party and independent candidates — minor players who have slim to no chance of winning but who can seriously damage the electoral chances of the major-party nominees. This year, with so many Americans unhappy about a rematch between President Biden and Donald Trump, alternative contenders are enjoying a moment, with one candidate in particular earning a surprising amount of support: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

A scion of America’s most famous political family, Mr. Kennedy is polling in the low double digits. With his quirky political brand, it is hard to know who his candidacy would wind up hurting more in November, Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump. But Team Biden is taking no chances: The Democratic National Committee has a war room up and running aimed at handling third-party threats such as Mr. Kennedy. One of the most senior members of this effort is Lis Smith, the veteran communications guru best known for helping soup up Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential run.

Ms. Smith is handling the public-facing effort to take down Mr. Kennedy and his kind. She and I had a phone chat recently about what this will take, and how she is feeling about this crazy election landscape. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Cottle: You are a senior member of the Biden campaign’s war room targeting third-party candidates — which sounds pretty ominous. But what exactly does this entail?

Lis Smith: I am overseeing the communications effort for the D.N.C. that is responsible for tracking the independent and third-party candidates. It is the first time that any effort like this has ever existed. The idea for it came about because Democrats learned the lessons of 2000 and 2016, when third-party candidates played the role of spoiler and helped elect Republicans. So given that democracy is on the line in 2024, we are leaving nothing to chance and making sure that we have a whole team that is dedicated to tracking these candidates and making sure that voters are fully informed about them.

Lis Smith in 2019 during the Buttigieg campaign.Credit…Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times

Cottle: The only third-party candidate who has gotten any real traction is R.F.K. Jr. Multiple recent polls found him with support in the low double digits. What is your sense of the ballot access situation with him? Is he going to make it onto most ballots?

Smith: As of right now, he’s made the ballot in a handful of states. The honest answer is that we don’t know what state ballots he’s going to be on, but our team is going to make sure that he and his team play by all the rules. Already we’ve seen that R.F.K. Jr. and his team believe that he is above the rules in certain places. In Nevada, for instance, where they collected signatures without a vice-presidential nominee, which, you know, they think that they should be given an exception to get on the ballot. Or when their super PAC was collecting signatures, which would have run afoul of federal coordination laws.

Cottle: In order to fight him, you presumably have to have a sense of his appeal to voters. So, being reductive, what is that?

Smith: Generally, R.F.K. Jr. finds support among voters who are dissatisfied with the two-party system, who aren’t enthused by either of the major-party candidates and who actually gravitate toward him because of his last name. It’s pretty stunning when you look at the polling. A significant percentage of voters who say they support him don’t know anything about him. Which signals to us that the Kennedy name is extremely powerful in attracting support for him.

So that’s why it’s really, really important for voters to understand that almost the entirety of the Kennedy family, the people who know R.F.K. Jr. the best, are opposing his candidacy and supporting Joe Biden.

Cottle: How do you address something that seems to be so driven by vibes? People are frustrated. That seems harder to tackle in some ways.

Smith: The most important thing that we can do is make sure that people understand that R.F.K. Jr. has no path to victory himself and that a vote for him is a vote for Donald Trump. And what we are doing is every day pointing out to voters that R.F.K. Jr. was encouraged to run by Trump allies like Steve Bannon. His candidacy is being propped up by Donald Trump’s largest donor, Timothy Mellon, who has given $20 million to the super PAC supporting R.F.K. Jr. and even R.F.K. Jr.’s own staff have said that their No. 1 goal in this election is to stop Joe Biden.

Cottle: That suggests that you have thought a lot about this discussion as to whom R.F.K. Jr.’s candidacy would hurt the most. I know different things pop up in different polls, and a recent NBC News poll said he would hurt Trump. But what is your sense generally, and what is the basis for that?

Smith: Our sense is that it’s dynamic, and it’s likely to change throughout this race. But, you know, at the beginning, there’s no question that R.F.K. Jr. took from both candidates but slightly more from President Biden. And that is largely attributable to the Kennedy last name. But our strong feeling is that the more that Democratic-leaning voters are exposed to R.F.K. Jr., the less likely they are to support him. On key issues like abortion rights and even Jan. 6, his rhetoric is much more in line with where Republicans are than where Democrats are.

Cottle: You’re more opposition research than positive case-making.

Smith: Well, right. Whereas the Biden campaign is focused on making a positive for case for President Biden, our focus really is just highlighting the negatives and vulnerabilities of the third-party, independent candidates, most notably R.F.K. Jr.

Cottle: Are there different categories of voters that are driving this boomlet, and are you targeting some more than others?

Smith: So overall, if I were to describe R.F.K. Jr. voters, I would say they tend to be younger, women, voters of color and lower propensity voters, right? These are people who do not live and breathe politics. They’re not reading The New York Times or watching MSNBC every day, and that speaks to the need for us to do intensive voter education and to make sure that they are aware of R.F.K. Jr.’s MAGA ties and some of the positions that put him at odds with Democratic-leaning independents. For instance, his previous statements that he would sign a national abortion ban. [Editors’ note: He later denied that he supported a ban, and has largely stopped discussing the issue.] These are things that some of his supporters may not know about him.

Cottle: What about younger voters? They are not feeling the Biden love these days — whether because of particular issues like the war in Gaza or out of general disappointment. How do you get through to them?

Smith: We will be doing work to make sure we are reaching younger voters where they consume their news. Social media influencers along with traditional media outlets.

On the issue of Israel and Gaza specifically, it’s really important that voters understand that R.F.K. Jr. may be even to the right of Donald Trump on this issue. He has made extremely insensitive and inflammatory comments. He has called Palestinians among the most pampered people on earth. He has spoken out against President Biden’s efforts to secure a cease-fire. If young voters are concerned about war, if they want to see a peaceful and humane solution, he is not their candidate.

Cottle: The race is super close in Michigan. In 2016, it was insanely close and third-party candidates effectively cost Hillary Clinton the state. Do you have a particular strategy for the state?

Smith: This is not super complicated. With Democratic-leaning voters who are open to R.F.K. Jr., as much as they might not be enthused about President Biden’s re-election, the only thing they are less enthused about is Donald Trump returning to the Oval Office. We need to raise the stakes of this election for them. Make clear that if you live in a swing state, every single vote matters. A vote for R.F.K. Jr. is a vote you can’t afford to make.

In 2022, you had a massive blue wave sweep across the state, in large part driven by the debate over abortion rights. R.F.K. Jr.’s past statements on this issue are going to come back to haunt him there. That’s why we’ve seen abortion-rights groups already start television advertising in Michigan targeting Kennedy.

Cottle: Are you looking at the V.P. candidate at all?

Smith: His vice president candidate, Nicole Shanahan, appears be in the witness protection program. In the month since she was announced, she has not been seen once on the campaign trail. She has yet to do a single news interview. This is completely unprecedented and reinforces that she was picked for a couple of reasons. 1. Everyone else, whether Tony Robbins or Aaron Rodgers, said no. 2. She is there to bankroll the campaign. She has a lot of money. She has already given $4 million to the super PAC backing him. She appears to be underwriting the ballot-access efforts. Pretty stunning that you have someone essentially able to buy a vice-presidential nomination. This should give voters pause — especially voters who sort of see R.F.K. Jr. as a vessel to fight back against politics as usual. He has essentially sold the vice-presidential nomination.

Cottle: Does he have legs beyond 2024, or is his boomlet particular to this moment?

Smith: We’ve seen one distinct trend line for R.F.K. Jr. in 2024, and that is downward. The more that people are exposed to him, the less they like him. He is also someone who embraces a lot of bizarre and dangerous conspiracy theories that make him unfit to be anywhere near the presidency. He doesn’t just question the efficacy of Covid vaccines; he pushes against the efficacy of polio and measles vaccines. His disinformation on the measles vaccine contributed to a big deadly outbreak of measles in Samoa. The more people are exposed to what a dangerous crank he is, the less they like him.

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