I'm Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: An independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter where we explore the big arguments of the day.

Did you know you can become a Tangle member? We have over 100,000 people on our mailing list, and over 15,000 are Tangle members. When you become a member, you get ad-free newsletters, full access to Friday and Sunday editions, and insider updates on how we are growing our business. Also, you help keep this project alive: Memberships make up over 90% of our revenue, and they're cheap! When you sign up for a year, memberships cost just $5/month. Please consider becoming a member here.

Today's read: 9 minutes.

Last week, Tangle editor Will Kaback sent me a pitch: He thought we were overlooking the potential impact of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign and made a strong argument that he might be the single most important variable in the 2024 election. I was intrigued, and asked Will to outline his argument and share it with me; but before I could even reply with my thoughts, he followed up to tell me that he’d just written the article and wanted to see what I thought. After reading his first draft, I decided we should work on it together and publish it. 

So today’s Friday edition is that piece: Tangle editor Will Kaback’s argument about the importance of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s campaign. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

— Isaac

Will anything shake up the 2024 election? 

Little has changed about the dynamics of the race in recent months: Notwithstanding Biden edging past Trump in one recent Fox News poll, the former president has held a small but consistent lead over Biden in national polls for months and still maintains leads of varying sizes in key swing states. These trends have by and large held steady, despite a number of stories that would typically be considered “game changers” — eye-catching articles about Biden’s age and mental acuity, major executive orders on issues like immigration, months of campus protests over the war in Gaza, and, obviously, Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts in New York. 

While I’m a little surprised that these events (and others) haven’t translated into more significant polling shifts, another part of me thinks we shouldn’t be surprised at all. Trump and Biden have had their respective nominations locked up since last year, they’re two of the most recognizable political figures in the world, and the vitriol between political camps is so strong that most people are not going to consider swapping their allegiance. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that we could learn anything new about Donald Trump or Joe Biden to significantly shift their support.

But what if we’re searching for 2024’s “game changer” in all the wrong places — thinking too much about how Trump and Biden can hurt each other, and not enough about whether someone else will take critical votes from both of them? Take another look at those national polls. You might notice a steady gray line lurking beneath the red and blue ones up top. That’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose independent bid for the White House has consistently polled around 10% since March and could be the most important factor in determining the outcome of this election.

Most of the mainstream press hasn’t taken Kennedy’s campaign as seriously as Tangle has; well before Kennedy was even in the race, Isaac predicted that in this year’s election, a third-party candidate would carry the largest percentage of the popular vote since Ross Perot in 1996. With every new poll showing Kennedy with a steady base of support, with every announcement from his campaign that he’s qualified for the ballot in another battleground state, and with every story about how dissatisfied Americans are with the major party candidates this year, that prediction looks increasingly prescient. And in this environment, Kennedy is more likely to disrupt the 2024 race than any “October surprise,” Biden “freeze up,” or Trump controversy. Don’t just take it from me; take it from the Biden and Trump campaigns, too.

If you’re mystified as to why anyone would take Kennedy’s campaign seriously, you’re probably thinking in terms of his chances to win the election. Remember: Gary Johnson received a lackluster 3.3% of the national vote in the 2016 election but still earned more than Trump’s margin of victory in decisive swing states. Kennedy is on pace to not only double Johnson’s total, but perhaps even triple it.

If you’re a Kennedy supporter (or just think his campaign has been under-covered), you probably think this piece is six months late. But Kennedy continues to face the typical challenges of a third-party candidate trying to build support: qualifying for debates, gaining ballot access, and competing with the built-in advantages of the two major parties. 

And before anyone accuses me of getting out over my skis, let me clarify: Like Isaac, I don’t think Kennedy has any shot at winning the election. Still, regardless of whether you support Kennedy or not, it’s a fact that elements of his campaign are popular with a broad (and politically diverse) swath of voters. His history of taking on corporate interests as a lawyer speaks to the sentiments of the “Bernie left” and “Trump right”; he’s adopted a strong anti-war stance that also appeals across party lines; and he’s toed the line on issues like crime, immigration, and reproductive rights in a way that could win him support from voters who see Trump and Biden as too “extreme” on those issues. Pair those positions with a political climate in which 55% of U.S. adults say they aren’t satisfied with the choice between Biden and Trump, and Kennedy’s polling numbers start to make a lot more sense.

There are three main scenarios for Kennedy’s campaign as November nears: His support surges, he maintains his 10% support, and his support starts to flag. Each of these scenarios could massively impact the election in November, and today we’ll explore each one in turn.

1. What if Kennedy’s support surges?

Upgrade to continue reading.

Become a paid member of Tangle to get access to all premium content.