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Nate Silver: Why RFK Jr. Probably Doesn’t Hurt Biden Nate Silver

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In many ways, RFK Jr. has more in common with Trump than Biden. (Philip Cheung for The Free Press)

It’s been an interesting experience getting my feet wet on Substack. The platform really does seem to attract a more politically diverse audience than my old stomping grounds at FiveThirtyEight. And I’m sure that will be even truer for this story, which is being co-published at Silver Bulletin and The Free Press.

I’m sure I won’t agree with every Free Press reader on everything, and vice versa. (The same is true at Silver Bulletin, frankly.) But one thing I do share with readers of both is a skepticism of mainstream media narratives. Although campaign coverage is much improved from the Boys on the Bus days of a generation ago, politics still begets its share of evidence-free groupthink.

Today’s case in point: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. inching closer to a third-party bid. Media coverage has focused on the downside risks for Democrats. A recent New York Times story, for instance, is full of fretting Biden backers:

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, has been helping coordinate Democratic efforts to stop the No Labels [third party] effort. He said the hope in the party has been that Mr. Kennedy would “go away” after losing primaries to Mr. Biden.

“It would be very bad” if Mr. Kennedy runs as a Libertarian, Mr. Bennett said. “We’ve been very clear that third parties in close elections can be very dangerous and would almost certainly hurt the president. That would be true of a No Labels candidate and it would be true of RFK.”

Bennett is overconfident when he says a Kennedy run would “almost certainly” hurt President Biden. I think the evidence is much less clear, and if anything points the other way: toward a Kennedy bid being helpful on balance for Biden. 

Maybe Bennett is an overconfident guy in general. “Joe Biden will beat Trump or another GOP nominee in a head-to-head contest,” he wrote in a July 20 email advertising a Third Way strategy briefing. Although it’s too soon to take the polls all that seriously, that’s a strong claim to make about a guy who is struggling as much as Biden has been recently.

There’s a Lot of Mythology About Third-Party Bids

Democrats are primarily skittish about third-party candidates because of two elections, 2000 and 2016. In 2000, Ralph Nader received 1.6 percent of the vote in Florida and 2.7 percent nationally, and probably did cost Al Gore the presidency. But that is mostly just because the election was so close—determined by only 537 votes in Florida. A fair number of Nader voters actually had Bush as their second choice.

Meanwhile, although the 2016 election was also close—coming down essentially to 80,000 votes between three states—the presence of third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein probably did not change the outcome. Stein received only about 1 percent of the vote nationally, and based on survey data, many of her voters would have sat out the race if they hadn’t voted for her. The same survey found that a plurality of Johnson’s voters would have broken for Trump.

Nervous Democrats might also point to 1992. George H. W. Bush wasn’t a Democrat, but like Biden, he was an incumbent who voters were unhappy with for his handling of the economy. In that race, Texas billionaire Ross Perot received 18.9 percent of the vote. However, a strong scholarly consensus holds that Perot did not cost Bush the election. Bill Clinton’s margin of victory over Bush was fairly wide, and analysis of exit polls suggest that Perot took more votes from Clinton than Bush, if anything.

Having looked at data on dozens of third-party candidates in other races (mostly for offices like Congress and governor) when building election models, I’m skeptical that they serve as spoilers as often as their critics claim. Third-party support tends to collapse down the stretch if the candidates aren’t seen as viable. Johnson, for instance, polled as high as 10 percent in polling averages early in the 2016 race before falling to 5 percent in the final polling averages and then getting only 3.3 percent on Election Day.

Third-party candidates typically also get less support in swing states, where voters know a protest vote could be more costly.

Polls Show Trump Supporters Think More Favorably of Kennedy

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Kennedy does prove to be a factor in 2024. Why the widespread assumption that Biden has more to lose than Trump? As my former FiveThirtyEight colleague Nathaniel Rakich has pointed out, polls fairly consistently show Kennedy with stronger favorable ratings among Republicans than Democrats:

Source: FiveThirtyEight

These trends have grown over time as voters have gotten to know Kennedy better, seen how he’s opposed Biden, and come to realize that a lot of Kennedy’s policy positions are actually pretty conservative.

You might also note that there’s quite a bit of variation in Kennedy’s ratings from poll to poll. I have a couple of theories about this: one is that it may depend in part on how polls define who’s a Democrat. Some Kennedy supporters may be lapsed “Democrats in Name Only” who are no longer on board with the current aims of the party. For instance, voters who share Kennedy’s skepticism about vaccines once had more of a home on the left than they now do. 

Voters may also differ in their views of Kennedy depending on their level of political knowledge. A voter who hasn’t yet thought much about the campaign might assume from the Kennedy name that RFK Jr. is a standard liberal Democrat, or maybe even a leftist one like his campaign manager Dennis Kucinich. Someone who watches more political news, conversely, might know that some of Kennedy’s positions are heterodox if not outright conservative. Polls of likely voters will capture a more knowledgeable set of voters than polls of all adults.

The July poll from The New York Times and Siena College provides some helpful hints on where Kennedy’s support comes from and exactly how it divides along partisan lines:

Let me point out a couple of nerdy details. One is that RFK Jr. is relatively popular with people who didn’t vote for a presidential candidate in 2020. That makes sense; his views aren’t particularly well-represented in either party coalition. However, this implies that Kennedy would pull some of his votes from the sidelines of the American electorate rather than from Biden or Trump.

Note also that Kennedy does worse among 2020 Biden voters than among Democrats. What does this mean, exactly? It means some of Kennedy’s supporters are anti-Biden Democrats. However, crucially, those anti-Biden Democrats mostly voted for Trump in 2020 if they voted at all. This is the best piece of evidence for a Kennedy run helping Biden. He may provide an off-ramp for voters who are fed up with Biden but would also like an excuse to not have to vote for Trump.

The effects of third-party candidates are hard to predict, but Biden could benefit from an RFK Jr. run. (Photo by Celal Gunes / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

RFK Jr.’s Issue Positions Aren’t a Good Fit for the Normie Dem Suburbs

The New York Times/Siena poll also finds that Kennedy—like Trump—does better with voters who did not go to college. That may be because he diverges from Democrats on a series of issues that are cultural touchstones for college-educated progressives:

Kennedy has consistently advanced vaccine-skeptical positions, and this is a well-known part of his public record. Post-Covid, there is a huge partisan split in views of vaccines, and this puts Kennedy on the opposite side of the issue from most Democrats.

Kennedy appeared to endorse a national abortion ban after 15 weeks. He later backed off that position, but there is video of the statement and both the question and answer are relatively clear. Considering how important the Dobbs decision was to Democrats’ overperformance at the midterms, you can be certain that clips like these will be in constant rotation in ads paid for by Democratic groups.

Kennedy has been skeptical of U.S. efforts in Ukraine. Voters generally do not vote on foreign policy, but this is yet another touchstone issue for college-educated liberals; think of all those Ukraine flags in Twitter bios.

Finally, Kennedy has said he doesn’t think it’s realistic to reduce gun violence, that he’s “not going to take people’s guns away,” and that the issue has been “settled” by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Guns, abortion, vaccines, and Ukraine are quite a quartet of issues to defect from the Democratic Party on, particularly from the suburban, college-educated base that Biden and other Democrats have increasingly come to rely upon.

Kennedy has other similarities to Trump. He may not have reached the same level of celebrity as Trump, but he has appeared on his share of magazine covers. And like Trump, he has sometimes endorsed conspiracy theories. I’m sensitive to complaints that what gets labeled a “conspiracy”—just like what gets labeled as “misinformation”—is a subjective question. But Kennedy has expressed a number of views, like on the link between vaccines and autism, that are outside of the scientific consensus. He has also claimed that Covid vaccines are “ethnically targeted” in claims that were denounced by the Anti-Defamation League. Like Trump, Kennedy has even claimed that a presidential election was stolen—only in Kennedy’s case, it was the 2004 election, which he baselessly said was stolen from John Kerry.

Still, Kennedy’s Effects Are Hard to Predict

Now that I’ve explained why I think Kennedy is more likely than not to help Biden, let’s acknowledge some counterarguments.

First, it’s been pointed out that some of Kennedy’s biggest backers are Republican megadonors, who presumably don’t have Biden’s best interests in mind and see Kennedy as a thorn in the president’s side. My general view, as someone who’s spoken with more billionaires than you might think (they come up a lot in the new book I’m working on), is that wealthy megadonors tend to have poor political instincts. Nor is there going to be any shortage of anti-Biden messaging whether or not Kennedy runs. Still, the notion that Biden is being “attacked from all sides” could be harmful to the president.

An argument I find more persuasive is that Trump has a higher floor but lower ceiling on his support than Biden does. In the most recent YouGov polling, for instance, 25 percent of registered voters have a very favorable view of Trump, and 51 percent have a very strongly unfavorable one. Biden views are a pinch less polarized (21 percent very favorable; 44 percent very unfavorable). In that case, then Trump’s die-hards might stick with him—even if they also like Kennedy.

So far, there haven’t been many polls that actually tested the three-way matchup, although one this week from Echelon Insights found that Trump had a 3-point lead that expanded to a 4-point lead when Kennedy was added to the ballot. A poll from a super PAC that backs Kennedy found that Kennedy drew more support from Trump than a typical independent, however. (Although you mostly shouldn’t trust polls put out by campaigns or interest groups.)

Ultimately, the question may come down to what sort of campaign Biden wants to run. If he thinks he can win a referendum on his presidency and the economy—well, in some ways having two challengers to divide the opposition makes that easier. But if Biden wants a campaign laser-focused on Trump, then Kennedy adds a wrinkle to that plan.

It’s also possible that Kennedy would bring about a campaign that, at the margin, is a little bit more focused on the ideological contrasts between the political parties. Biden might actually prefer that to one focused on his age, especially if there’s more discussion on issues like abortion where Democrats’ position is popular.

I don’t want to be too wishy-washy here. If I’m Biden, I’d probably take a 60/40 chance that Kennedy helps me rather than hurts me. But that’s partly because I wouldn’t be all that confident about my chances to begin with.

Nate Silver is a statistician and writer. Subscribe to his Substack, Silver Bulletin.

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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