RFK Jr’s Super Bowl campaign ad raised candidate profile, but also brings scrutiny

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s third-party presidential campaign broke into the American public consciousness last week with a Super Bowl ad funded by a prominent Democratic donor.

But the upstart campaign could disrupt either major party in November and has already drawn the ire of Democrats, his relatives and others who see him trading on his family name and endangering public health.

Nicole Shanahan, an environmental lawyer and the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, paid more than half the bill for a $7 million commercial that aired during the most-watched Super Bowl ever, with 123 million viewers. 

Shanahan, who remains a registered Democrat, told USA TODAY her roughly $4 million donation was specifically meant to help pay for the commercial.

“I was kind of waiting to see how he was polling that week before the Super Bowl,” Shanahan said. “A few polls came out and they were better than I thought in my wildest imagination this early in the game. Then I said, ‘All right, let’s do it!'”

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Kennedy, nephew of the late president John F. Kennedy and son of the late attorney general for whom he is named, left the Democrat race last fall to run for president as an independent.

An environmental lawyer, Kennedy had opposed vaccines long before the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also gained attention for skewering the pharmaceutical industry, mainstream politics and the military-industrial complex.

Several political scientists said Kennedy’s campaign could throw a wrench into this fall’s presidential race, which is expected to pit President Joe Biden against former President Donald Trump.

“With so many states that were won and lost by such a narrow margin during the 2020 presidential election, there’s always going to be a concern with Kennedy playing spoiler,” said John Cluverius, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

What supporters think of him

Clayton Lindley, 28, of Scottsdale, Arizona said he likes what he’s seen of Kennedy so far.

Lindley, an extreme sports athlete and action sports media production company owner said he voted for Trump in 2016, but “scribbled some random name” for president in 2020, calling both Trump and Biden “bad options.”

“Both sides are crazy so I don’t want to vote for them this time around, either,” Lindley said. “Both (political) parties are moving further and further away from the middle and I think Kennedy is a strong independent who will try to bring some balance.”

Pro basketball hall of famer John Stockton agrees, saying that Kennedy can help bring Americans of all parties together.

“He’s not divisive, he wants to have conversations about things. He’s calm and inviting in his responses,” said Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assists leader. “I think at this time in our history those are valuable traits.”

Shanahan supported the Super Bowl ad in part because Americans “live in a democratic and not strictly in a two-party state” and an independent candidate like Kennedy deserves “having a shot” to get on the ballot and a path toward the White House.

“Just because it hasn’t happened in the history of the United States doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” she said. “I think our founding fathers meant for there to be races like this.”

Sunday’s ad raised awareness, stirred controversy

Prior to the ad, 40% of Americans didn’t know Kennedy was running for president as an independent, said Tony Lyons, co-founder of the American Values Super PAC, which funded the ad.

The 30-second spot, the only campaign ad aired during the game, closely resembled an advertisement John F. Kennedy used during his successful run for the White House in 1960.

Shanahan said she and her team began pouring over old campaign ads for ideas earlier this month. The cartoonish commercial replaced images of JFK with ones of RFK Jr. “The jingle just stuck with all of us,” she said.

The 64-year-old ad is in the public domain so the super PAC was legally able to use it, Shanahan said. She also assisted with the ad’s final production edit and helped ease any legal concerns with CBS and Paramount, which aired the big game. 

There will be at least three to four more commercials coming out in the next 30 days, Lyons said, including a spot that will be one-minute long and another that will be 30 minutes. A documentary is also in the works.

After the ad ran, the Democratic National Committee accused Kennedy of serving as a “Trump stalking horse” seeking to undermine Biden’s reelection bid.

The DNC had previously filed a legal complaint against American Values, saying its support of Kennedy amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.

The DNC argued that most states require the candidate or their campaign committee ‒ not a political action committee ‒ to take the steps necessary to qualify for the ballot. This includes collecting signatures from registered voters that then need to be certified.

American Values, which has raised $28 million so far to support Kennedy, plans to invest between $10 million to $15 million to get him on the ballot in 12 key states, Lyons said. The PAC is operating independently of the campaign to follow Federal Election Commission rules, he said.

The campaign itself has raised an additional $15 million, according to federal filings

Several of Kennedy’s cousins, who had already denounced his candidacy, including his debunked claims about vaccines, quickly criticized Sunday’s ad.

Bobby Shriver, son of John F. Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter on Sunday: “My cousin’s Super Bowl ad used our uncle’s faces and my Mother’s. She would be appalled by his deadly health care views. Respect for science, vaccines, & health care equity were in her DNA. She strongly supported my health care work at @ONECampaign & @RED which he opposes.”

Shriver’s brother, Mark Shriver, replied to the post saying that he agreed.

Kennedy soon responded with an apology also on X.

“I’m so sorry if the Super Bowl advertisement caused anyone in my family pain,” Kennedy said. “The ad was created and aired by the American Values Super PAC without any involvement or approval from my campaign. F.E.C. rules prohibit Super PACs from consulting with me or my staff. I love you all. God bless you.”

The presidential candidate would later pin the ad on his X profile.

Kennedy’s campaign seemingly appreciated the attention the ad created.

“We are pleasantly surprised and grateful,” campaign press secretary Stefanie Spear said.

Campaign origins and future

In 2022, American Values co-founder Mark Gorton said he and Lyons founded a political action committee called the People’s Pharma Movement, aimed at going after pharmaceutical industry corruption.

“I thought it would be useful to have a super PAC/ hybrid PAC that could do things like endorse candidates,” Gorton said. “There’s a fairly large movement of people quite unhappy by profitmaking corporate interests that no longer serves the American people.”

Gorton, founder of Tower Research Capital, a high-frequency trading firm, was familiar with what Kennedy was doing. He had given $1 million to Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine nonprofit organization, since 2021.

When Kennedy decided to run for president last fall, Gorton said he and Lyons decided to “rename and reorient” their PAC to American Values and back Kennedy. The organization is named after the book, ‘American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family,’ which Kennedy published in 2018.

Gorton said he was part of a “small circle” who learned Kennedy wanted to run for president about six months before any announcement. He said he’s been long impressed with Kennedy’s ability to stand up and question authority.

Candace McDonald, American Values’ chief executive officer said the PAC consists of more than 50 members and “some freelancers” scattered across the country. The super PAC will have another filing at the end of February, she said.

At his 70th birthday fundraiser in Los Angeles last month, Kennedy announced he filed paperwork to form the “We the People” party in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi and North Carolina and a “Texas Independent Party.”

Kennedy’s campaign said that forming parties in those six states would reduce the number of signatures he needed to get on the ballot in all 50 states by 330,000, or about a third.

“The main objective is to ensure that Bobby has a path through ballot access, awareness and influencer campaigns,” McDonald said.

Last month, Kennedy told CNN talk show host Michael Smerconish that he’d be open to running as a Libertarian Party candidate.

“That is something that we’re looking at,” Kennedy said. “We have a really good, relationship with the Libertarian Party.”

Political implications of Kennedy’s run

Votes for Kennedy might come at the expense of either President Biden or former President Trump, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.  

“RFK (Jr.) appeals to younger voters who don’t connect with either major party elder, hurting Biden,” said Paleologos, a collaborator with USA TODAY/Suffolk polls. “But Kennedy also takes votes away from Trump among independents of all ages. Trump needs these independents in some swing states to make up for a party registration deficit.”

Kennedy’s strongest advantage is his name, said UMass’ Cluverius. “But that name identification has a lot of dwindling power” in American politics. Cluverius pointed out that then-Congressman Joe Kennedy III, lost to Sen. Ed Markey in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary in 2020. Before that, no member of the Kennedy family had lost an election in Massachusetts, according to the Cook Political Report.

Any attention from Sunday’s ad will likely fade within a couple of weeks, Cluverius said. He thinks it was both “too expensive and poorly timed when people don’t want to think about politics.”

Kennedy will face two major problems winning votes by Election Day, he predicted.

“One is a history of taking positions that don’t align with most voters in the country, and, two, he has a habit of making one statement and either denying it or having to issue a correction,” Cluverius said. “Some voters might find out that the more they learn about Kennedy, the less they like him.”

Supporter Leigh Merinoff, an ecological farming teacher and community organizer from southern Vermont, knows it will be an uphill challenge to get Kennedy votes.

“It is our time to make this paradigm shift where it is not about party, but about saving the people,” said Merinoff, the volunteer chair of American Values national finance committee. “We’re not trying to conquer, we’re just trying to get to a better place as Americans.” 

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