What do Americans think about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.?

David MontgomerySenior data journalist
January 19, 2024, 10:20 PM GMT+0

Third-party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is among the best-liked figures in national politics. 45% of Americans have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of him, while 34% have an unfavorable opinion, according to the latest Economist/YouGov Poll. Among 16 political figures included in the poll — including the president, the vice president, the four top congressional leaders, and Republican presidential candidates — only Donald Trump is viewed favorably by as many Americans. And 50% view Trump unfavorably. Everyone else falls short of Kennedy's favorable number, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley.

But this popularity isn't translating into votes. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll found 1% of registered voters picking Kennedy in a hypothetical general election, far below the 44% who said Joe Biden and 43% for Donald Trump.

Explaining Kennedy's popularity

So what explains the heights — and limits — of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s popularity?

A lot of it comes down to politics. Though Kennedy comes from a famous Democratic family, he's much more popular among Republicans than Democrats. 61% of Republicans view Kennedy favorably, compared to only 33% of Democrats.

But while Republicans are more likely to view Kennedy positively, he's not unusually popular among Republicans. In particular, two Republicans who are running for president this year are even better-liked by Republicans than Kennedy is: Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. So even Republicans who like Kennedy might have other presidential candidates they like as well or better. 91% of Republicans who view Kennedy favorably say they would vote for Trump in an election that also included Biden; only 2% would vote for Kennedy.

What makes Kennedy's overall popularity so high is that he's less polarizing than most other candidates. Among six politicians in the most recent Economist/YouGov poll who are liked by a majority of Republicans, Kennedy is the most popular among Democrats. And while Kennedy's 33% favorability among Democrats isn't high, none of the politicians included in the survey with higher favorability among Democrats are better liked than Kennedy among Republicans.

In an era of deep polarization, Kennedy has found a certain measure of national popularity by not being particularly disliked by people in any party — even though this isn't translating into many supporters.

There is one group of Americans who do passionately dislike Kennedy, a group who might otherwise be expected to look fondly on a scion of the Kennedy family of Democratic politicians: older Democrats.

Young Democrats are fairly divided in how they feel about Kennedy, with similar shares holding favorable and unfavorable opinions. Roughly equal percentages of Republicans hold favorable views of Kennedy across the age spectrum. But Democrats who are 65 or older are overwhelmingly likely to dislike Kennedy, with 80% of them holding a negative opinion and just 13% a positive opinion.

Voters disagree on how to label Kennedy's politics

Kennedy's broad favorability might also reflect disagreement or uncertainty about his political positions. Similar shares of U.S. adult citizens describe Kennedy's politics as "liberal" (21%) and "conservative" (20%), while 26% describe him as "moderate" and another 32% aren't sure.

Democrats are more likely to say Kennedy is a conservative, while Republicans are more likely to say he's a liberal. But that reflects something deeper: Americans who like Kennedy tend to describe his views as moderate, while people who don't like him tend to say his views are different from theirs. (This is true of some other politicians: Democrats, who overwhelmingly back Biden for president, are much more likely than Republicans to see him as moderate; the same isn't true with Republicans and Trump.)

For example, among the 33% of Democrats who have a favorable opinion about Kennedy, only 10% describe him as a conservative, compared to 42% who say he's a moderate and 27% who say he's a liberal. But among the 50% of Democrats with an unfavorable opinion about Kennedy, 57% say he's a conservative, compared to just 10% who say he's a moderate and 8% who say he's a liberal.

The same story holds among Republicans. Among the 61% who like Kennedy, 44% say he's a moderate, while 14% call him conservative and 26% say he's liberal. Among the 27% who dislike Kennedy, only 17% say he's a moderate. Instead, 63% of anti-Kennedy Republicans call him a liberal, while only 5% say he's a conservative.

— Kathy Frankovic and Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the toplines and crosstabs from the Economist/YouGov poll conducted on January 14 - 16, 2024 among 1,660 U.S. adult citizens.

Methodology: 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 November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Getty (Rebecca Noble)