How Americans evaluate JFK, RFK Jr., their relatives — and other unrelated Kennedys

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
July 13, 2023, 6:31 PM GMT+0

The Kennedy name holds a significant place in the American political landscape, due to a history marked by both triumph and tragedy. From John F. Kennedy's presidency to his brother Robert F. Kennedy's noteworthy political career, the family consistently has been a significant subject of coverage in the American national media. Most recently, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — an environmental lawyer who is the son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of John F. Kennedy (JFK) — announced a run for president in the Democratic primary. While his poll numbers are well below President Joe Biden's, he has garnered more support than many expected — a fact that some have attributed to his widely recognized surname and family affiliation.

To understand how Americans feel about not only JFK but the 2024 candidate and a host of other Kennedys, a new YouGov poll asked Americans their opinions of 13 prominent people with the surname Kennedy, including JFK and nine other members of his family, as well as three unrelated people who happen to have the same last name.

The first question addressed in our poll is whether Americans can correctly differentiate between relatives and non-relatives of JFK. At least half correctly say each of the following six people are his family members: John F. Kennedy Jr. (son of JFK), Jackie Kennedy Onassis (wife of JFK), Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy (brothers of JFK; former attorney general and U.S. senator, respectively), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (nephew of JFK), and Caroline Kennedy (a diplomat and daughter of JFK). Only around one in four correctly identify each of the following as relations of JFK: Joseph P. Kennedy II (nephew of JFK and former member of Congress), Joseph P. Kennedy III (great-nephew of JFK and former member of Congress), and Patrick J. Kennedy II (nephew of JFK and former member of Congress).

The vast majority of Americans accurately don't categorize the three other Kennedys asked about — James Kennedy (reality TV personality), John Neely Kennedy (current U.S. Senator), and Anthony Kennedy (retired U.S. Supreme Court justice) — as relatives or family members of JFK.

Do Americans have positive or negative opinions of the Kennedys? John F. Kennedy is the most popular of the Kennedys asked about, earning a net favorability rating of +61 (calculated by subtracting the percentage of Americans who view him very or somewhat unfavorably from the percentage who view him very or somewhat favorably). His wife Jackie is a close second in popularity (+54).

More Americans have favorable than unfavorable views of nearly all members of the Kennedy family included in the poll, with Ted Kennedy being the only exception (-1). Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (+24) is viewed less favorably than his father (+39), but somewhat more favorably than his brother, Joseph P. Kennedy II (+6) — in part because the latter is not very well known.

And how many Americans are familiar with each Kennedy asked about?

Views of JFK and his family break down along party lines, with Democrats viewing all but one of the 10 asked about more favorably than Republicans. The one outlier is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who despite currently running in the Democratic primary, has a higher net favorability rating among Republicans (+33) than among Democrats (+20). His uncle Ted Kennedy is the most polarizing: Among Republicans, his net score is -30; among Democrats, it is +32.

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on June 27 - 30, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty Images (Scott Eisen)