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How conservatives are boosting RFK Jr.’s campaign

Fox News coverage is a double-edged sword in a Democratic primary.

- September 26, 2023
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in New York City.
(cc) Pamela Drew. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Health Freedom Rally Times Square Oct 18, 2021.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently thanked Fox News for being “very, very generous” in their coverage of his campaign for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. 

He has some good reasons to be grateful, too. Political science research shows that free media helps lesser-known presidential candidates like RFK Jr. initially rise in the polls. And you can see from the first graph below that Fox News has mentioned Kennedy much more this past year than CNN and MSNBC combined. 

Drawing on data from a GDELT project search of the Internet’s TV News Archive, the display shows that Fox News has covered Kennedy’s campaign pretty consistently since he announced his bid for the presidency back in April. According to the GDELT data, the conservative cable network has mentioned “Kennedy Jr.” and “RFK” 1873 times in 2023, compared to just 349 and 472 mentions of him on MSNBC and CNN respectively. That exposure has surely helped him gain a devoted following and rise to double digits in the primary polling averages against Biden

But, on the other hand, political science research has also demonstrated that there’s more to sustained support for insurgent candidates in presidential primaries than just media attention. Larry Bartels’s account of presidential primaries, for instance, showed that as voters acquire more information, “the public comes to increasingly evaluate candidates on their political merits, in accordance with longstanding political predispositions.”

These underlying political predispositions pose a big problem for Kennedy Jr. in the Democratic party’s presidential primaries. Going on Fox News to bash President Biden and vaccines may resonate with a conservative audience, but it won’t win over Democrats when nearly 90 percent of them approve of the president’s job performance and are vaccinated against covid

So it’s not surprising that Nathanielle Rakich’s analysis found that Republicans rated Kennedy much more favorably than Democrats in a series of July 2023 polls. Nor is it surprising that the next graph shows this partisan gap widening significantly over the summer as people have learned more about RFK Jr.    

You can see in the display that Kennedy’s net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) was +22 with Republicans and -14 among Democrats when Quinnipiac University first asked their respondents about him in June. This partisan divide then grew to +30 vs. -47 in Quinnipiac’s latest polling from September – a result that dovetails very nicely with the Bartels’ aforementioned contention that voters increasingly evaluate candidates in accordance with their longstanding predispositions during the primary campaign.

The same activation of political predispositions is also now apparent in Democratic voters’ preferences for the 2024 presidential nomination. A look at the polls finds that RFK Jr.’s support in the primaries is heavily concentrated among less liberal Democrats.

Averaging across three Quinnipiac University polls from July, August, and September to boost each subgroup’s sample size, reveals that 17.7 percent of Democrats who identify as conservative or moderate intend on voting for Kennedy Jr. in the primaries, compared to just six percent of very liberal Democratic voters. Kennedy’s support from the most liberal Democrats is so weak, in fact, that he trails Marianne Williamson among this group by over a two-to-one margin: 13.3 to 6 percent respectively. 

It appears, then, that conservative news coverage has been a double-edged sword for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign. Fox News’s amplification of his message has inevitably aided his popularity with Republicans, including the GOP donors who are bankrolling his campaign. It’s probably helped him gain a bit of traction with more conservative Democrats in the 2024 primaries as well. But neither Fox News’ conservative audience nor Kennedy Jr.’s campaign content are helping him win over the liberal Democratic voters that he needs to have even the slightest possible chance of winning the party’s nomination. Instead, the more Democrats see of RFK Jr., the less they like him.