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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign plans 'three-way debate' counter programming

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Jose Luis Magana/AP
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FR159526 AP
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Updated June 25, 2024 at 17:48 PM ET

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s longshot presidential bid has hit several roadblocks in recent days: after not hitting polling thresholds and not being on enough state ballots, he will not be on this week’s presidential debate stage.

The latest fundraising reports show the campaign does not have a lot of money in the bank, but Kennedy’s campaign manager and daughter-in-law Amaryllis Fox Kennedy is not worried about the prospects for the future of the campaign.

In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, she insists there will be a “three-way debate” Thursday, falsely claiming that the independent presidential candidate met the criteria published by CNN to appear on the debate stage alongside President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the campaign announced "The Real Debate" counter programming, where Kennedy will "answer the same debate questions live" on a website and streaming on the X social media site.

"I'm going to be on that debate stage with or without their permission," RFK said in a video.

The media outlet’s qualifications included a requirement that a candidate have at least 15% support in four polls from certain high-quality pollsters and appear on enough state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to actually win the presidency.

RFK Jr. met neither, and the campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing that this week’s debate is illegal without his inclusion, even suggesting that CNN staffers could face prosecution if it were to happen.

Kennedy earned at least 15% in three qualifying polls according to CNN, but his support has dropped recently: the latest NPR/PBS News/Marist poll showed Kennedy at 11% and a recent Fox News poll had him at 10%.

According to the latest press release from the campaign, Kennedy is officially on the ballot in eight states: Utah (6), Michigan (15), California (54), Delaware (3), Oklahoma (7), Hawaii (4), Texas (40) and South Carolina (9), which only accounts for 138 electoral votes, well short of what is required.

Even then, the campaign appears to overstate its current access: For example, Texas elections officials have not yet certified the petitions submitted earlier this year. In Mississippi, where the campaign previously said it had ballot access, elections officials there said that the “We the People” Party that would nominate Kennedy did not file the proper paperwork and is not on the ballot — for now.

Each state has different rules and thresholds for third-party ballot access, with different deadlines and different requirements for a candidate as opposed to creating a new political party. In all, the RFK campaign says it has collected signatures for another 17 states, though some of those are not submitted to state elections officials while others have not been verified yet.

Both Democrats and Republicans have ballot access in all 50 states, and will formally nominate Biden and Trump at conventions later this summer.

Democrats are currently suing in at least four states, including Nevada and North Carolina, to keep Kennedy off the ballot. They allege the campaign misled voters who signed petitions and made errors with the petitioning process.

Compounding the debate denial and the ballot access barriers, the campaign has been crunched for cash.

In total, the campaign has raised more than $46 million, including $10 million in self-funding from vice presidential nominee Nicole Shanahan, and spent over $40 million, with roughly a quarter of that going towards security services and campaign consulting, according to campaign finance reports.

In May, the campaign brought in roughly $2.6 million and spent more than $6 million, mostly on ballot access efforts. RFK Jr. has almost $6.5 million in the bank.

Kennedy’s campaign manager attributed the decline to the state of the economy and said there are actually more donors to the campaign than ever.

“We've added more donors and supporters, for example, in the first four days of June than in all of the month of May, and likewise in May compared with the previous month,” she said. “And I believe that that's a really exciting and telling sign of the growth of the movement. What we've seen is individual contributions — the actual total amount of individual donations go down rather than the total number.”

When asked what Kennedy would be doing on Thursday instead of attending the debate, his campaign manager teased the debate counter programming announced Tuesday.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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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.