R.F.K. Jr. Fails To Make The First Debate

[ Posted Tuesday, June 18th, 2024 – 15:30 UTC ]

The Washington Post is now reporting that Robert F. Kennedy Junior will not meet the criteria that CNN instituted for inclusion in the first general-election presidential debate. This is not really all that surprising, since the criteria were essentially written to exclude Kennedy and other third-party candidates. And while Biden supporters might cheer the news that only President Joe Biden and Donald Trump will participate, it does highlight the hurdles built in to the American political system for those without a "D" or "R" after their names.

The first 2024 debate will be unique in a number of ways. It is being held early -- way early. It is being held so early that neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party will have officially nominated Trump or Biden, since their conventions are still in the future. For the first time in a very long while there will be no live audience for the debate. It is also the first presidential debate in half a century to be hosted by a television network rather than a supposedly-neutral organization (first the League of Women Voters, then the Commission on Presidential Debates). Both campaigns negotiated directly with the networks to arrange the two debates scheduled for this election cycle. There will be no middleman, in other words. Rather than being aired simultaneously on all the broadcast networks, the debate will be aired exclusively on CNN. And because of Trump's past belligerence and refusal to follow the rules, the candidates' microphones will be muted when it is not their official time to speak -- something that had never been considered necessary before the dawn of Donald Trump on the presidential debate stage.

What this all meant was that the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign were free to negotiate terms with the networks themselves rather than having to agree to the terms laid down by the neutral third party. And part of these negotiations obviously included who would be allowed on the stage. They couldn't very well just explicitly state "only Biden and Trump will debate, period," so instead they came up with a set of rules that bear some similarities to the ones used in past years (which have kept third parties off the debate stages since H. Ross Perot's time). The rules require a certain number of national polls where the candidate hits 15 percent or better and that the candidate be officially qualified for the ballot in enough states to add up to the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win the presidency. Kennedy is close to that first hurdle, but far from the second. As the Post reports:

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has repeatedly claimed that he appears on enough statewide ballots to qualify for next week's debate between President Biden and Donald Trump and has threatened to sue CNN for not letting him on the stage.

But a Washington Post survey of state election officials found Kennedy is not on the ballot in several states where he has claimed he is -- and he will not reach the requirement by Thursday's deadline to qualify for the debate. The rules of CNN's debate indicate candidates must appear on enough ballots nationwide to earn the requisite 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, along with earning 15 percent support in four national polls.

Election officials in Utah, Delaware, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee have confirmed Kennedy will be on the ballot. Additionally, CNN has counted California and Hawaii, where Kennedy is the presumptive nominee of minor parties where the states have either not certified him or received paperwork. Those states add up to 100 electoral votes. Kennedy also has not yet met the polling requirement for the debate, though could if a qualifying poll is released before Thursday.

Kennedy, of course, is not a happy camper. As far as he is concerned, the game was rigged in advance against him. And it's hard to say that he's wrong -- he's definitely got a point:

Kennedy's campaign has argued that Biden and Trump similarly should not qualify for the stage under CNN's rules because they have not yet officially been selected as the presidential nominee by their respective parties. The Republican and Democratic nominating conventions are in July and August, respectively. But CNN has said that because Trump and Biden are their respective parties' presumptive nominees, and major-party candidates don't have to petition states for ballot access, both satisfy the electoral college criteria for the debate, according to CNN.

In other words, CNN bends their own rules when they feel like it, but strictly adhere to them for others. This is in keeping with the entire American political system, which has been set up to favor the two major parties over all others. In most states, the Republican Party and Democratic Party do not need to lift a finger to get onto the presidential ballot -- they are automatically included. However, third parties must go through a rigorous process (the details of which are different in every state, some more accommodating than others) of collecting signatures to indicate support from a certain percentage of the voters. Kennedy has been funding such efforts everywhere, but in many states even though he has submitted the paperwork, the process of certifying it will not be complete before the deadline (because this debate is so incredibly early). Kennedy has successfully done an "end run" around some states' requirements by, being nominated by existing third parties (who already have secured ballot access), but only in a handful of places. So being barred from the debate is part and parcel of a much larger bias against any third-party or independent presidential candidates that is pretty much baked into the system. Even the supposed referee for this system is largely toothless -- Kennedy has complained to the Federal Election Commission, but they are famously inept at actually doing anything to ensure fairness in elections in real time.

Kennedy, as mentioned, does have a point. He is the highest-polling independent in a long time -- since H. Ross Perot, in fact. He has indeed polled in the double digits in national polls, which is a rather impressive feat for any independent candidate. How much this is a factor of his famous name is debatable, as is whether his support will actually translate into votes in November. But even so, he has achieved the strongest showing of any independent candidate in three decades.

Kennedy may manage to get on stage for the second debate, although there's no guarantee that he will. His presence in the 2024 race is a giant question mark hanging over both the major parties' campaigns, since nobody really knows whether Kennedy will pull more support from Biden or from Trump. Of the states he has already qualified for ballot access, the only one where he might actually be a deciding factor is Michigan -- so far, that is. If he secures ballot access in other battleground states, R.F.K. Jr. could wind up tilting the race enough to secure victory for either Biden or Trump. But for the first debate, at least, he will not be allowed on CNN's stage.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “R.F.K. Jr. Fails To Make The First Debate”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Excluding junior from the debates is a good thing, number one; and, number two, I hope Biden sticks strictly to policy and refrains from any personal attacks against Trump.

    If Biden does nothing else in these two debates but make the case for how Democrats are the better stewards of the economy for the majority of Americans and against the Republican cult of economic failure - which only works for the millionaire and billionaire class and then not ideally for them, either, in the grand scheme of things - then he just might do enough to compensate for all of the other issues working against him, in particular and against Democrats, in general.

    On the economy, over the course of the last many decades, Republicans have a far less than stellar record to stand on and all Trump himself has is obfuscation and bluster based on fantasy.

    Of course, it wouldn't hurt for Biden to admit that Dems have made mistakes, too. But, for the average American voter and their personal economy, the choice could be made crystal clear if Biden is up for making that economic argument.

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Hammering the economic argument is not a bad idea, but it's important not to get bogged down in policy details, only repeatedly point out bread and butter issues in simple terms that voters can understand.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    e.g. this guy screwed up the economy so bad that it took me a year and a half to fix. By the time we finally slowed Trumpflation down and got people jobs again, things had already gotten so expensive. Does anyone really want that to happen AGAIN?

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Don't have to get down in the weeds of policy to make a great and simple argument about the economy or any other domestic issue. I just haven't seen Dems really try to do it yet. Effective messaging is not their strong suit, in other words. Which is precisely why most Americans STILL see the Republicans as the better stewards of the economy.

    The best guy I've ever heard really make a great yet simple to understand economic case for Democratic pro-growth tax and fiscal policy just happens to be one of the most hated former public officials in the history of the country. Yeah, I'm talking about former treasury secretary ... and life-long public servant up until when he left the Obama administration in 2013 having almost single-handedly saved Main Street from complete destruction, Timothy Geithner. Oh, the hor, irony!

    Unfortunately, Geithner will be remembered only for saving Wall Street. I shudder to wonder where we would all be if the advice given by Elizabeth Warren had been followed, instead.

    As Geithner has said of his time in the Obama administration, "we saved the economy but we lost the country." Mostly because the treasury secretary was too busy actually saving the economy to make the great and simple arguments in favour of Democratic economic policy and no one else was effectively making that case in his place.

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