As Republicans elevate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his polls sour

The right’s thinly veiled campaign to elevate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for its own political purposes culminated Thursday with his invitation to testify at a congressional hearing. It was a remarkable scene: a Democratic presidential candidate, who just last week suggested that the coronavirus could have been a “deliberately targeted” bioweapon to spare Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish people while attacking White and Black people disproportionately, and who has regularly espoused debunked vaccine claims, welcomed by Republicans to the House “weaponization” subcommittee to drive a pet message in front of a national audience.

The move was, of course, impossible to separate from conservative media’s own effort to play up Kennedy’s campaign. Fox News has devoted extensive attention to Kennedy on the air and its website, publishing more than 80 articles and videos about him since his campaign launch in April. This despite President Biden’s leading Kennedy by upward of 50 points in polling.

This attention has been predicated on Kennedy’s supposedly surprising strength in the primary. But as we argued back in April, Kennedy’s support appeared largely inflated by his famous last name.

And even as he was about to testify, there came evidence that the effort was fizzling.

Kennedy’s support in the Democratic primary is down slightly from those unexpected early polls, which pegged him around 20 percent. But more significant than that, Democratic voters have perhaps predictably turned on him as they actually learn about him.

Around the same time as those early polls, a YouGov survey showed Kennedy with the best image rating of more than a dozen political figures. And he was double-digits popular across the political spectrum.

That is far from the case now.

Quinnipiac University released a poll Wednesday showing Republicans continue to like Kennedy — by more than a 2-to-1 margin, in fact. But among Democrats, Kennedy’s image was more than 2-to-1 negative. While 21 percent had a favorable opinion, 47 percent had an unfavorable one. That’s 26 points “underwater,” up from 15 points underwater a month ago.

And a new poll out of New Hampshire is even worse for Kennedy. The University of New Hampshire Survey Center in April showed him 22 points underwater among likely Democratic primary voters; its latest poll now shows him 60 points underwater.

UNH’s surveys often include higher-than-normal unfavorable ratings for politicians, but that shift is remarkable. And notably, it comes among voters who tend to pay more attention than national voters do, by virtue of New Hampshire’s status as an early primary state.

Just 9 percent had a favorable opinion of Kennedy, compared with 69 percent who had an unfavorable one. The survey also asked people to use one word to describe Kennedy, and the most popular words were “crazy,” “dangerous,” “insane,” “nutjob,” “conspiracy” and “crackpot.”

That same poll still showed Kennedy pulling 10 percent in the state’s Democratic primary (compared to Biden’s 70 percent). But Kennedy was the second choice of only 4 percent of voters. Furthermore, the survey asked about a scenario in which Biden isn’t on the ballot — there is wrangling over whether he’ll participate, given a dispute over the primary calendar — and only 3 percent of Biden voters said they would instead vote for Kennedy in that case. (Sixty-five percent said they would simply write in Biden.)

These are not the numbers of someone who is seriously competing for the nomination. These are the numbers of someone with a distinctly low ceiling. And that’s a ceiling whose proximity to the floor has long been clear, but which some people have chosen to ignore for their own reasons.

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