Biden claims an early debate win: RFK Jr.’s absence from stage

Josh Wingrove | (TNS) Bloomberg News

President Joe Biden’s campaign already sees one victory from the upcoming debate with Donald Trump — the absence of third-party challenger Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from the stage.

Kennedy and other independent presidential contenders failed to meet the criteria to qualify for Thursday’s debate in Atlanta, according to host CNN, boosting Biden’s efforts to cast the 2024 race as a two-person contest between him and Trump.

The showdown comes as Biden looks to shore up the broad electoral coalition he’ll need to defeat Trump and his fervent conservative base. Some polls find Biden performing better against Trump head-to-head than in surveys where voters are presented with a larger pool of candidates, making it crucial for the Democrat to minimize the risk of his support draining away to outside challengers.

Biden’s team has sought to hammer the message that voters face a binary choice in November.

“It is Joe Biden or Donald Trump, and anyone that does anything but vote for Joe Biden is supporting Donald Trump,” Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon said on a Puck podcast this week.

“There’s just one choice, and it’s before you on this stage,” she added.

A campaign adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said they plan to use the debate to spur supporters to speak with undecided family and friends about their vote.

Kennedy has blasted CNN and the two major-party campaigns for his exclusion, claiming he met the debate criteria. “My exclusion by Presidents Biden and Trump from the debate is undemocratic, un-American, and cowardly,” he said in a statement.

Kennedy on Thursday plans to answer the same questions posed to Biden and Trump in a livestream concurrent with the televised main event.

The challenge posed by independents like Kennedy, Cornel West and Jill Stein won’t be neutralized by their failure to appear on the debate stage. The election could well be decided by just tens of thousands of votes scattered across as few as three battleground states, making the third parties potential spoilers.

Polls show Kennedy drawing from Biden and Trump voters in roughly equal measure, and both major-party campaigns have sought to discredit him among their supporters — while also trying to make him more appealing to the other side.

Indeed, the core of Kennedy’s support comes from so-called “double haters” — voters holding unfavorable opinions of both Biden and Trump. About three in 10 battleground-state voters who say they won’t vote for either major-party candidate would vote for Kennedy if he were an option, according to a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll last month.

Democrats have been engaged in a feverish push to keep Kennedy, a scion of one of their most famous dynasties, off ballots. Biden has touted the endorsements of other Kennedy family members to sideline his rival, the best polling independent in the U.S. in decades.

Trump has also intensified his attacks, casting Kennedy as a “Democratic plant.” Kennedy’s opposition to vaccine mandates, skepticism of gun-control measures and crusade against tech companies he accuses of censorship, align him closely with much of Trump’s base.

“I’d love to have him in the debate, but he’s got bad numbers,” Trump said earlier this month at a rally, claiming he and Biden would equally lose votes. “Kennedy probably takes 50-50, but he’s a fake,” Trump added.

The Kennedy campaign says it has filed to get on the ballot in 24 states totaling 348 electoral votes — more than the 270 needed to have a theoretical chance at winning the Electoral College. But his campaign remains mired in legal challenges in several of those states.

Kennedy also lags far behind the major-party candidates in fundraising, but got a boost by selecting Silicon Valley lawyer and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan as his running mate. Shanahan, the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, contributed $8 million to their campaign in April, taking advantage of federal law allowing candidates to donate unlimited amounts to support their own candidacy.

An AARP poll, released earlier this month, found Trump leading Biden among voters of all ages by 47% to 45% head-to-head. But in a wider field, Kennedy has 11% support, boosting Trump to a five-point edge over Biden at 42% to 37%.

Voters under age 50 are the likeliest to back third-party candidates, including 25% of voters 18 to 34, the poll found. Young voters were crucial to Biden’s 2020 victory but he faces the risk of weakened support fueled by disappointment over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war and other issues.

“Between Trump and Biden, right now, it’s a bigger threat to Biden,” pollster Bob Ward of Fabrizio Ward, LLC, which helped conduct the survey.

Another AARP pollster, John Anzalone, who also surveys for Biden’s campaign, cautioned it is still early and that billions in advertising will have an impact on the race.

On Thursday, Biden intends to outline his second-term agenda and highlight the contrast with Trump to frame the race as a choice between the two, O’Malley Dillon said.

“Him standing next to Donald Trump is the best way to show that,” she said.

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(With assistance from Gregory Korte and Stephanie Lai.)

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