Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s chances of winning the White House are slimmer than his neckties – but he does hold significant power to disrupt the upcoming election.

Kennedy’s sartorial accessory of choice – a super-skinny tie, which he pairs with a classic button-down shirt and blazer – is a not-so-subtle ode to the preppy, iconic style of his uncle, former president John F. Kennedy.

For Kennedy, the third-party candidate poised to play spoiler in the 2024 presidential election, it’s a fitting tribute to the campaign he’s running: one sewn in nostalgia, dyed in old-school Americana, finished off with a heavy dose of his last name – and always, always, controversial.

So it’s only mildly ironic that most of Kennedy’s own family have disavowed his candidacy.

Take, for instance, the now infamous, and much-maligned, 2024 Super Bowl ad that superimposed Kennedy’s image over a vintage 1960s John F. Kennedy presidential election ad, replete with the jingle: “Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy!” RFK Jr was attacked by a cousin on X for exploiting his uncle’s lineage, and forced to apologise for any “pain” he caused his family.

Since then, a total of six of Kennedy’s siblings have endorsed the sitting president, Joe Biden. Jack Schlossberg, the grandson of former president Kennedy, doesn’t mince words in disparaging his cousin. He is, in Schlossberg’s estimation, “a prick”.

Kennedy’s anti-establishment traits

Kennedy may have the same elegant New England pedigree as his late father, a former senator, and his late uncle: a Harvard degree, keys to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, and a closet full of Brooks Brothers suits. But the younger Kennedy is anything but an establishment politician.

If his COVID-conspiracy spouting and anti-vaxxer reputation didn’t already prove it, then his choice of vice presidential running mate should. That’s Nicole Shanahan, the billionaire ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose views are just unorthodox as Kennedy’s.

The “driving force” (and purse) behind the US$7 million (£5.5 million) Super Bowl ad, Shanahan has made waves for calling in vitro fertilisation “one of the biggest lies being told about women’s health,” and for claiming that vaccines cause widespread harm.

The controversies are on-brand for Kennedy.

Recently, he announced that a parasitic worm ate part of his brain (it’s dead now apparently). He’s been interviewed on Infowars, the alt-right media outlet whose leader, Alex Jones, was ordered to pay roughly $1 billion for denying the legitimacy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. He has also been praised by Trump devotees Steven Bannon and Roger Stone.

To the left or to the right?

None of this is to say Kennedy’s campaign is trivial. For anyone convinced that Kennedy’s ventures into fringe world will certainly prevent him from determining the next leader of the free world, consider the statistics.

According to a recent poll by the New York Times, Kennedy picks up almost 10% of likely voters in six key battleground states. That’s nearly a quarter of the percentage of voters who intend to support Joe Biden (36%) and Donald Trump (42%) in the same states.

Kennedy appears more likely to take support from Trump than Biden, but only marginally. In the poll in the battleground states, about 8% of Trump voters and 7% of Biden voters said they preferred Kennedy. About 32% of Kennedy’s supporters said they had voted for Biden in 2020, while 24% voted for Trump.

disproportionate number of young voters in these states support Kennedy. The majority of his support comes from disaffected voters who tend to back Democrats.

In an election dubbed the “rematch from hell” and in which approximately half of the electorate would replace both Biden and Trump as choices if they could, Kennedy’s current numbers might actually be underestimated. It’s why both the White House and Mar-a-Lago are perhaps more nervous than they’re letting on.

Enter the debates?

Whether Kennedy is allowed to enter the televised debates could be a game changer. He has expressed confidence that he’ll be on stage, but the reality is not certain. Under the rules of the CNN face-off scheduled for June 27, he’d need to up his support in the polls to at least 15% nationally and ensure that his name is on enough state ballots to be eligible to reach 270 electoral votes, the minimum required to clinch the Oval Office (he’s now at roughly one-third of that threshold).

But the bigger question is what version of presidential candidate Kennedy wants to be – the flame-throwing, populistexperts-are-out-to-get-you conspiracy theorist that courts Maga Republicans, or the anti-monopoly, union-friendlytree-hugging Democrat that appeals to the progressive left.

Kennedy recently urged Biden to take a “no spoiler pledge” in which Biden would exit the race if he fared worse than him in a head-to-head poll against Trump. According to Kennedy, Trump “is not a spoiler because he can actually win”. The comment is as illogical as many of Kennedy’s conspiracy theories.

Skinny ties went out of vogue in the 1960s. But as Kennedy proves, a lack of common sense is a trend that never dies.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Thomas Gift is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre on US Politics at UCL.

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