Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden might have a Kennedy problem. In recent weeks, Robert Kennedy Jr., the 69-year-old son of the distinguished senator from New York who was tragically assassinated in 1968, announced he is running in the 2024 Democratic presidential primary. Although experts didn’t pay much attention to his candidacy initially, there has been more chatter in recent weeks.
Kennedy, an environmental lawyer turned anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, is polling between 10 and 20% nationally. And he keeps gaining significant media attention, from a lengthy profile in New York Magazine to his appearance on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast.
There are many reasons Kennedy might cause trouble for Biden. His left-leaning positions on the environment and corporations, coupled with conspiracy theories, many of which are popular on the right, could cause some voters to peel away from Biden. And, of course, there is the Kennedy name — one of the most recognizable and beloved in Democratic politics.
The biggest problem, however, has to do with the primary calendar. At the end of last year, Biden switched the Democratic primary schedule to put South Carolina first. But New Hampshire is refusing to cede its historic spot, pointing to a state law that stipulates the Granite State must hold its primary one week before all the others.
As a result, Biden might not even appear on the New Hampshire ballot, effectively ceding the state to Kennedy and author and speaker Marianne Williamson.
If Kennedy sails to victory, this could cause a fallout reminiscent to what President Lyndon B. Johnson faced in 1968, when Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota came in a strong second in New Hampshire. McCarthy’s success partly contributed to Johnson’s shock announcement weeks later that he would not, in fact, run for reelection.
Kennedy, however, remains a long shot, with little chance of winning anything other than New Hampshire. There is no evidence that he has the capacity to pull off what President Ronald Reagan came close to achieving in 1976 — knocking off incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.
Like other primary challenges against incumbent presidents, the main threat Kennedy poses is the negative impact he might have on Biden and the possibility that his candidacy could weaken the standing of a president who has already struggled with low approval ratings and concerns about his age.
Unlike Republican attacks, Kennedy’s criticism will come from within the Democratic fold and could gain more legitimacy within the party (although he has also gotten support from the right, from people who may be looking for a way to disrupt Biden). And while he has shied away from direct attacks on Biden thus far, that could change as the campaign progresses.
We have seen the damage that this can cause. Like the tremors that McCarthy caused when he nearly upset Johnson, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had a similar impact on a struggling President Harry Truman in 1952. After Kefauver was victorious in New Hampshire, Truman soon announced that he would not run for reelection.
In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts mounted a formidable challenge to President Jimmy Carter. Ted Kennedy blasted him, saying that he was a weak leader and criticized him for abandoning core Democratic constituencies and ideas.
In 1992, the former speechwriter and television pundit Patrick Buchanan took on Republican President George H.W. Bush. Despite Buchanan’s controversial reputation and history of spouting bigoted views, Buchanan excited many conservatives with his populist, anti-establishment appeal.
Some of his attacks on “King George” — which painted Bush as a president who was out of touch with the concerns of working Americans — stuck. Buchanan’s blistering culture wars speech also energized cultural conservatives who didn’t think much of the president (though Buchanan ended up endorsing him). The damage was enduring and contributed to Bush’s legacy as a one-term president.
Even with his mediocre approval ratings, Biden is still in a much better position than either Carter or Bush. The president can point to a formidable legislative record. With inflation abating, he can boast about a strong economy where jobs are plentiful and prices have stabilized. Biden also benefits from the specter of another Trump presidency, which is enough to rally Democrats and scare voters who might otherwise be tempted by a challenger like Kennedy.
And while Kennedy doesn’t match the appeal of other historical candidates like McCarthy or Kefauver, a primary challenge — and all the potential problems that it could cause — should not be discounted. Many of Biden’s 2020 supporters are frustrated with the president, and any attacks Kennedy will unleash could damage Biden and provide a foundation for Republicans to go after him in the campaign.
The administration will have to make some strategic decisions about how to handle the New Hampshire primary and how best to strike back against Kennedy as the 2024 campaign shapes up.