Polling A Three- And Four-Way Race

[ Posted Wednesday, November 1st, 2023 – 16:36 UTC ]

[I begin with a technical note. I couldn't use the obvious title for today's article, since Politico already ran this story using the go-to phrase: "Spoiler Alert?" and I didn't want to be a copycat....]

Polling for the likeliest of general election matchups this far out -- almost exactly one year until people actually get to vote for president next November -- cannot be seen as definitive, but it also cannot be brushed aside as irrelevant (since it's pretty obvious at this point that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are going to wind up winning the two major parties' nominations). But it won't actually be just a two-man contest, since there will be other names on the ballot, in what is likely to be enough states to make a big difference. Both Robert F. Kennedy Junior and Cornel West have announced they are going to be running as independents, and who knows who the Green Party or the nascent No Labels effort will decide to nominate? At the very least, there may be four names for voters to choose from. Perhaps even five or six.

Most of the polling to date hasn't reflected this -- at least not yet. But the polls which do exist so far show that Kennedy, in particular, could be a spoiler on the order of H. Ross Perot -- who, in his first third-party bid for the presidency in 1992 raked in a whopping 19 percent of the popular vote. That is more than just a marginal effect, obviously.

The Politico story was spurred by a single poll from Quinnipiac which did include Kennedy. The poll asked the question in three ways: Trump-Biden, Trump-Biden-Kennedy, and Trump-Biden-Kennedy-West. Biden actually won all three of these iterations, but not by much (within the 2.4 percent margin of error in two of them). In the head-to-head matchup, Biden beat Trump by a single point, 47 percent to 46 percent. With Kennedy thrown in the mix, Biden did better, winning by three:

39 -- Biden

36 -- Trump

22 -- Kennedy


As you can see, that 22 percent is even better than Perot did (although it is indeed still a year out from the actual election). The four-way race was even tighter:

36 -- Biden

35 -- Trump

19 -- Kennedy

6 -- West


As Politico pointed out, Kennedy was actually on top in two areas, when you break the votes down by demographic:

In another positive sign for Kennedy, he came away with the backing of a plurality of independents: 36 percent chose him, compared with 31 percent for Trump and 30 percent for Biden.

. . .

In a warning sign for Democrats, Kennedy was the leading choice for young voters, aged 18-34, in the poll's surveyed population -- 38 percent of whom chose the environmental lawyer. From the same age group, 32 percent picked Biden and 27 percent went for Trump.

Those are sobering numbers for Joe Biden, or should be. Kennedy isn't as much of a danger to Biden's chances as any other member of his dynastic clan probably would have been, because he isn't exactly a traditional Kennedy when it comes to the ideological spectrum. Kennedy became the darling of the far right for his anti-vaxxer stance during the COVID pandemic (and before), meaning he will likely "steal" more votes from Trump than he will from Biden. But West's draw, while smaller, is going to come almost exclusively at Biden's expense, which kind of balances things out.

The Quinnipiac poll may be something of an outlier, since it gives Kennedy his highest numbers yet. Susquehanna released their own three-way poll today and it had a much better result for Biden:

47 -- Biden

40 -- Trump

6 -- Kennedy


But then again, that may have been more of an outlier. Other polling from the past week or so shows Kennedy is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Last week, Reuters polled a three-way race and got the following results:

40 -- Trump

38 -- Biden

14 -- Kennedy


While HarrisX released a poll one day earlier with a similar result in a four-way race:

40 -- Trump

38 -- Biden

18 -- Kennedy

3 -- West


USA Today polled a day earlier than that and came up with a tie between Biden and Trump (at 37 percent) while Kennedy pulled in 13 percent to West's 4 percent. One day earlier, Harvard-Harris had a truly sobering poll for Biden:

41 -- Trump

34 -- Biden

21 -- Kennedy

3 -- West


Now, as we all know, H. Ross Perot didn't win a single Electoral College vote. He was never going to be president, and it's a pretty safe bet that (barring unforeseen circumstances) R.F.K. Jr. isn't going to be president either. But just like Perot, he could indeed have a big spoiler effect -- especially in the battleground states.

Cornel West is about as left as you can get. Kennedy, however, is not (even though you'd expect him to be pretty far left, based on his last name). Kennedy became a favorite of Fox News and a darling of the anti-vaxxers on both the right and the left, and while he was running as a Democrat outlets like Fox loved to boost him up, thinking he'd be an embarrassment for Joe Biden in the primaries. Now that he is threatening Trump's base with his independent bid, they've either dropped him altogether or are running him down to their viewers.

How much of this is purely name recognition (for his last name and famous initials) is anyone's guess. What will happen when the general public takes an in-depth look at R.F.K. Jr. and realizes he's not exactly your garden-variety Kennedy? Again, no one can tell. If we actually get general election presidential debates (an open question, at this point), will Kennedy be included? Will West? Kennedy's got a better shot at meeting any criteria for appearing on a debate stage than West, but if that did indeed come to pass, would it cause a serious collapse in his support as both Biden and Trump ripped into him (from different sides of the spectrum)? I could see that happening, even if it is a long way off. Or perhaps some of Kennedy's current support might migrate to whomever No Labels decides to run -- that's a distinct possibility as well.

Real three- and four-way races are a lot harder to handicap than a head-to-head matchup. There are all sorts of shifting allegiances when it's not an "either/or" choice. And there is indeed a whole lot of discontent out there at being given the same two options as we got in 2020. For differing reasons, there are plenty of voters who don't want to see either Trump or Biden on their 2024 ballot. Right now some of them may simply be answering pollsters' questions with some version of: "Oh, there's another choice? I'll take him." Or even: "Hey, it'd be cool to have another 'President Kennedy,' wouldn't it?"

But any election analysis from the punditocracy (yours truly definitely included in that) should certainly start weighing this emerging reality. Especially at the state level. The last election was decided by a relative handful of votes in a relative handful of battleground states. Third-party bids can upset those applecarts very easily (just ask Al Gore how things went for him in Florida...).

There may be an ironic twist to all this, of course. Because the more seriously the political media begin taking Kennedy's independent run -- the more attention they pay to him and the more they explain what he actually stands for -- the worse his chances may get. How many young people are truly on board with being anti-vaccine? How many independents will stick with Kennedy when they learn what he's all about? Those are unanswered questions at this point -- but they are questions that demand to be asked.

One way or another, R.F.K. Jr. has to be taken a lot more seriously than he has been up until now. That's about the only thing you can say for certain at this juncture, with one year to go. Because it's not just a two-horse race anymore.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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