From Olvera Street to the Ballot Box: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s ‘Viva Kennedy’ Campaign

On the opposite side of the celebrated Mexican marketplace along Los Angeles' Olvera Street, amid sizzling tacos and a female mariachi ensemble performing the renowned melody “Cielito Lindo” for the spectators on Cesar Chavez Day, the gathering bore resemblance to a Democratic candidate's Get Out The Vote (GOTV) rally.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr
. Kennedy Jr (Image source: Twitter)

However, the presence of a bishop, a former Border Patrol supervisor, and a Latino sheriff vocal against vaccine mandates suggested it could easily pass for a Republican rally.

Yet, it was neither. Saturday witnessed the revival of third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s “Viva Kennedy” Hispanic outreach initiative, echoing the inaugural Latino voting campaign launched by Kennedy's uncle, John F. Kennedy, during the 1960 presidential race.

Presently, Kennedy's name appears officially on the November ballot solely in Utah. Nonetheless, his campaign, alongside an associated super PAC named Values 2024, disclosed last month their acquisition of sufficient signatures to secure ballot access in the pivotal Southwestern battlegrounds of Arizona and Nevada, where approximately one-fifth of voters identify as Latino.

While these signatures remain susceptible to challenge, the prospect of Kennedy's inclusion on the ballot has stirred concern within the Biden camp. Latino Democrats now regard Kennedy's campaign with grave seriousness following the revelation of a previously undisclosed mid-February poll conducted by Democratic entity Equis Research.

The poll, spanning a dozen battleground states, unveiled Kennedy's unexpectedly robust support among Latino voters, potentially fracturing Biden's Hispanic coalition from 2020, where he clinched 59 percent of Hispanic support.

Kennedy's burgeoning appeal seems to stem from his name recognition and a prevailing lack of enthusiasm for both President and former President . The poll, surveying 2,010 registered Latino voters, identified Kennedy securing the allegiance of one-fifth of young Latino voters.

Furthermore, it highlighted his significant support among Latinos, with 17 percent in Arizona and an even more substantial 21 percent in Nevada—marking the highest among the battleground states surveyed. Biden's faltering Latino support in the poll was stark enough to tip the scale in Trump's favor across 12 battleground states, where Trump garnered 41 percent compared to Biden's 34 percent.

Should these trends persist until November, it would signify a seismic shift within the Democratic coalition and a reconfiguration of the electoral landscape, potentially leading to Democratic losses in Nevada and Arizona. In light of Trump's 2020 inroads with Hispanics, Democrats could previously rely on the Southwest as a stronghold. However, the potential loss of Nevada and Arizona to Trump, fueled by waning Latino support, foreshadows broader electoral setbacks for Biden nationwide.

“Kennedy wields considerable clout in Democratic circles, and any support he garners directly undermines Biden,” remarked Fernand Amandi, Hispanic pollster for both of Obama's campaigns.

The margin for error in Arizona or Nevada is exceedingly narrow for Biden. In 2020, Biden clinched victory in Arizona by a margin of fewer than 11,000 votes, while in Nevada, his lead stood at a mere 2.4 percentage points, equivalent to 34,000 votes.

These states have gradually leaned towards Republicans since. In the midterm elections, the GOP unseated Steve Sisolak, the only incumbent Democratic governor to lose in 2022, and came tantalizingly close to unseating Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator.

Nationally, Biden's allies dismiss Kennedy's potential impact, projecting that the 70-year-old former environmental lawyer and scion of former New York Democratic Sen. Robert Kennedy will likely secure less than 1 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, even a marginal share could alter the outcome significantly—based on the 2020 vote totals, 1 percent could triple Biden's winning margin from four years prior.

“The Southwest is pivotal to securing the 270 Electoral College votes needed. To dismiss Kennedy outright is folly,” affirmed Mike Noble, founder of Arizona-based polling firm Noble Predictive Insights.

A notably younger Latino electorate flexed its influence in 2020, particularly in Nevada and Arizona, where young Latinos constituted 40 percent of newly eligible voters—an electorate described by the Brookings Institution as decisive in the 2020 election.

While Latinos largely propelled Biden to victory in the Southwest in 2020, the 2024 election is marked by growing apprehension among Democrats due to Biden's dwindling popularity and persistently tepid support among Hispanics.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden (Image source: Twitter)

As Latinos weigh their options for November, some are gravitating towards Kennedy. Active Facebook communities rallying behind the Democrat-turned-independent have emerged, spearheaded by campaign personnel or springing up organically. Larger national groups boast a combined membership of 31,000 members, with smaller state-specific groups surfacing in Arizona and Nevada, deliberating over Kennedy's vice presidential pick and ballot access strategy.

Many of Kennedy's youthful Latino supporters appear less swayed by familial legacies and more by disillusionment with a two-party system they perceive as inadequate, particularly concerning healthcare.

Ismael Brandon Hernandez, a 29-year-old Mexican American Army veteran residing in Peoria, Arizona, typifies this sentiment. Having abandoned his allegiance to the , Hernandez cites his disillusionment with both Republicans and Democrats, aligning himself with independents.

Kennedy's advocacy for healthcare reform, particularly addressing chronic diseases, resonates deeply with Hernandez, inspiring newfound political engagement.

Meanwhile, Lexi Shay Gonzales, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from East Mesa, Arizona, views Kennedy as a potential solution to the state's water challenges, given his environmental credentials.

However, Gonzales' optimism is tempered by Kennedy's vague stance on addressing water issues in Arizona. Despite this ambiguity, Gonzales sees Kennedy as a catalyst for change, especially in healthcare reform.

The apparent contradiction between Kennedy's commitment to public health and his staunch anti-vaccine stance does not deter Gonzales, who herself remains ambivalent about vaccines.

While the Biden campaign and its allies downplay RFK Jr.'s electoral prospects, citing his fringe positions, including his anti-vaccine views, some Democrats are treating Kennedy's candidacy as an existential threat.

Matt Barreto, a pollster and consultant with ties to the White House and the Biden campaign, asserts that third-party support is already factored into the electoral calculus in swing states. He contends that Kennedy's candidacy while generating buzz, is unlikely to gain significant traction as the campaign progresses.

Nevertheless, Democrats are ramping up efforts to counter Kennedy's influence. The national Democratic group Latino Victory Fund intends to launch a multimillion-dollar public education campaign warning against “wasting” votes on third-party candidates.

Sindy Benavides, president and CEO of Latino Victory Fund, acknowledges the need for strategic planning to address Kennedy's candidacy, considering the potential impact on Latino voters.

Despite assurances from Democratic operatives, Kennedy's candidacy has stirred unease among voters like Noah Herrera, a 55-year-old real estate professional from Las Vegas. Herrera, a former Biden supporter, now serves as vice chair of the Coalition of Independent Nevadans, underscoring the vulnerability of moderate voters to Kennedy's appeal.

The relaunch of Viva Kennedy, a nod to the Kennedy family's historic alliance with Cesar Chavez, underscores Kennedy's efforts to court disenchanted Latino voters.

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