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The latest on Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s struggling presidential campaign

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s independent presidential campaign has hit some road bumps. He won't be in this week's presidential debate between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, and his latest fundraising report shows some warning signs. NPR's Stephen Fowler is following Kennedy's long-shot bid for the White House. Hey there.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Why won't he be on the debate stage with Biden and Trump this week?

FOWLER: So Thursday's CNN debate has two main rules to qualify. You got to have several high-quality polls showing at least 15% support and be on enough state ballots to actually have a shot at being president. RFK hit neither one of those thresholds. Now, Kennedy's campaign has filed complaints alleging a debate without him is illegal. They even suggest CNN employees could be at risk of prosecution. That's a claim made without evidence, and it misrepresents what Federal Election Commission rules say about having debates. And on the polling front, despite the unpopularity of both Trump and Biden, Kennedy's numbers have fallen lately as voters hear more and more about him.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of voters is he attracting?

FOWLER: These are people, Ari, that don't feel like the Democratic and Republican parties, especially when they're led by Trump and Biden, represent them. Many voters I've talked to say that RFK is really the first time they felt energized by a campaign and had their voices heard. His message centers around skepticism over vaccines and skepticism over the role of the government in everything and doesn't really have a mainstream appeal. Some of his stances are more conservative, and yet others about global war and the environment are more progressive in their nature. But bottom line, there aren't that many people backing RFK.

SHAPIRO: And even the people who want to vote for him may or may not be able to. He's trying to get on the ballot in all 50 states, but how's that actually going for him?

FOWLER: So as a reminder, each state has their own rules about third-party campaigns and how they can get access to the ballot. Some states require a certain number of signatures. Some make it easier to create your own political party. And all of them are very, very technical with the process for how it happens. The campaign says they've submitted enough signatures to hit that 270 electoral vote threshold for CNN, but not enough of them have been verified by local officials. Case in point, the RFK campaign said Mississippi was a state where they had access. Elections officials there said, not so fast, you didn't fill these things out correctly. We haven't certified anything, and you're not on our ballot for now.

SHAPIRO: And Democrats are also suing to keep him off the ballot in some states. Explain that.

FOWLER: Democrats say the RFK campaign misled people in some states to sign their petitions. They improperly took shortcuts to try to gain the system and make new parties and circumvent these strict rules and just overall made a bunch of errors. So they're suing in states like North Carolina and Nevada, alleging Kennedy can't be on the ballot. Now, this matters a lot, Ari, especially in swing states, because third-party campaigns that could draw support from Trump and Biden or bring in people that otherwise wouldn't vote could be a deciding factor in who wins the White House.

SHAPIRO: So he's trying to get on the ballot and also trying to raise money. As we mentioned at the top, that's not going so well either. Tell us about it.

FOWLER: Last month, the RFK campaign brought in $2.5 million or so and spent more than 6 million with about 6 million in the bank. That's such small potatoes compared to what Trump and Biden and the two major parties raise each day. Most of RFK's money is being spent on ballot access effort, funded mostly by his vice presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, who's a wealthy attorney in the tech field.

But it also shows why there's not as much traction for his or really any independent campaign. To get on the ballot takes a lot of money and attention. That's less money for your message. And without reaching a lot of people, you can't get a lot of votes.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler covering the RFK Jr. campaign from his perch in Atlanta. Thanks, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.
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