Do Voters Have The Wrong Kennedy In Mind?

By: Avery James

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, the Democratic primary is presumed to be already over. Incumbent presidents running for reelection rarely face strong competition, and Biden remains the leader of his party. While he has struggled to dictate New Hampshire’s primary schedule, the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight finds what we’ve been seeing in our own data: President Biden has a hefty fifty-point lead over his closest competitor, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. That’s a considerable lead for RFK Jr. to overcome. The fact that Republicans like him more than Democrats probably won’t help.

But Robert F. Kennedy Jr. might be facing another big issue. Among those who do express support for RFK Jr., we wondered; are voters even thinking of the right person?

Our latest omnibus included a test to evaluate this question. We presented voters with a picture of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his father, Bobby Kennedy, and asked them which one was “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.”. The results are quite remarkable. Only 59% of likely 2024 voters correctly picked the image of RFK Jr. instead of the image of his father.

Party didn’t make a difference in the ability of voters to choose the right RFK in the image lineup. Indeed, Republican and Democratic-leaning voters picked the right image by virtually identical margins. We also found voters who correctly identified RFK Jr. were unfavorable to him by a 7-point margin, 36-41, while voters who incorrectly picked his father favored him by 31 points, 47-16.

But the most striking difference in favorability for RFK Jr. is among partisans who correctly identified him. Republican-leaning voters viewed him favorably by a margin of 31 points while Democratic-leaning voters viewed him unfavorably by a margin of 43 points. Take away the ghost of Bobby Kennedy, and voters for both parties divided on him in a way that confirms he might be running in the wrong primary.

This confusion over which Kennedy RFK Jr. also mattered among Republican primary voters. Republican voters didn’t meaningfully differ in their choice for the primary nominee by whether they identified RFK Jr. But when it came to considering candidates, voters who correctly identified him were far more likely to consider Tim Scott or Nikki Haley.

It also mattered for how Republican voters identified themselves in a broader sense. Republicans who call themselves supporters of Donald Trump rather than supporters of the Republican party are significantly more common among those who incorrectly picked the image of RFK Jr.’s father. GOP-leaning voters who got it right are split even between the two categories, 44 to 44. This could suggest a general information effect, in line with income, education, race, and other variables differing for the correct image selection.

There are plenty of reasons why a voter might support or oppose a candidate like RFK Jr. in his bid for the presidency. But when someone has a name with as much prominence as a Kennedy, it is worth asking how much voter attitudes are being driven by the candidate himself versus his namesake. We think our experiment sheds some interesting light on what RFK Jr.’s polling numbers could really mean for his popularity in the country as a whole.

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