Is a Biden-Trump-RFK debate in the cards? 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s rising profile is raising the question of whether he could appear on a debate stage with President Biden and Donald Trump — and what impact that could have on the presidential race.

It’s not yet clear if Kennedy, who has seen scattered polling throughout his candidacy, will even be able to qualify for a televised forum, as the independent candidate has also yet to collect enough signatures for most state ballots.

But discontent with the two parties’ standard-bearers has opened up a potential third choice, especially one with access to considerable money, making a square-off among the three polarizing figures a possibility.

“If Bobby can consistently poll at 15 percent and better from now [until] fall, coupled with increasing ballot access, he has a legit shot at making the debate stage,” a Kennedy ally familiar with the campaign’s messaging strategy told The Hill. 

The first presidential debate on the commission’s calendar is slated for Sept. 16 in Texas, followed by a vice presidential showing on Sept. 25 in Pennsylvania. Two more productions are slated for October in Virginia and Utah. 

Kennedy has made it known that he wants to get in on the debate action. He’s angling to go head-to-head with Biden and Trump, and has called for an open exchange of ideas and critique of existing policy in front of the American public. He wants voters to envision a November election that looks beyond a dismal two-party rematch.

“I should have a spot in those debates,” Kennedy said in an appearance on Fox News this week. “There’s all these really existential issues and neither of them can really deal with them.”

“We are in a more toxic polarization and division than any time since the American Civil War,” he said.

As the drama builds, Biden and Trump have not been enthusiastic about the idea of getting into it with Kennedy, whom they both view as a menace, regardless of the host or timeline of the debate. 

For one, it could simply elevate the third-party contender as Trump and Biden poll neck-and-neck. Kennedy has family name recognition but is not as widely known as the current or former president, who enjoy the benefits of each having held the White House. 

At this point in the race, it’s also unclear whose campaign he could rattle more drastically. Biden and Trump are each vying for support among covered voters who feel frustrated with Washington politics. That includes independents, who famously swing either way and with whom Kennedy has sought to identify this cycle. 

Aaron Kall, who serves as director of debate at the University of Michigan, said Kennedy could also throw another “wild card” onto the stage as Biden and Trump each want to grab the spotlight and avoid miscues amid questions about their age and mental fitness.

For now, Democrats and Republicans still see Kennedy as an unlikely candidate, though they’re each paying closer attention to his campaign than in the past. His media circuit has mostly consisted of podcasts and alternative shows with select cable news appearances. Showing up in front of a national audience as a contrast to his two competitors could showcase him in front of a much wider audience.

Still, there’s a fundamental question of whether Biden and Trump will even debate each other. Though Trump has said he’d debate Biden “anytime, anywhere, any place,” the former president skipped out on all of the Republican primary debates held this cycle, a move decried by many of his ex-competitors and by the Biden campaign. There’s no guarantee he won’t do that again.

Team Biden, meanwhile, has said he’s “happy” to debate Trump, going perhaps further than some of his more hesitant comments on the prospect in recent months. 

Trump, while in New York this week for his hush money trial, claimed he doesn’t “know anything” about Kennedy, the candidate he called in a recent Truth Social post “a Radical Left Liberal who’s been put in place in order to help Crooked Joe Biden.” 

“Look, RFK is polling very low. He’s not a serious candidate,” Trump said in Manhattan, when asked whether or not he’d debate the independent.

“They say he hurts Biden – I don’t know who he hurts, he might hurt me, I don’t know. But he has very low numbers, certainly not numbers that he can debate with. And he’s gotta get his numbers up a lot higher before he’s credible,” Trump added. 

Some strategists believe Biden has the edge over his two rivals, given Trump’s ongoing legal strife and questions about Kennedy’s viability.

“I do think that President Biden will come out a clear winner if all three of them get up on that stage,” said Democratic strategist Kristen Hawn, as new polling suggests Kennedy’s bid could do more harm to Trump. 

Hawn also noted that the timeline of Trump’s criminal trials is still up in the air, and legal obligations could complicate plans for a debate – or simply draw more attention to them. 

Some of Kennedy’s allies have said that regardless of his troubles with the law, Trump could still want to engage on stage if given the chance. “He’s open to mixing things up,” said the source familiar with Kennedy’s campaign. “He’s more than willing to debate Bobby.” 

Biden’s boosters, including within the Democratic National Committee, however, may be much less willing to advise the incumbent president to debate Kennedy. Democrats have made it clear that they see him as someone who spouts conspiracy theories about vaccines and whose aligned super PAC takes money from Trump donors. 

“The DNC will do everything they can to deny Bobby a podium,” the pro-Kennedy source speculated. 

Kennedy and the Democratic Party apparatus have been at odds much of this year, with Kennedy picking them apart for being biased toward Biden and committee officials criticizing his bid as a way to elevate Trump and building a narrative that he’s a “spoiler.”

“The DNC orchestrated a notably skewed democratic primary, resulting in Biden emerging as their nominee. Now, their stuck with Biden, who can’t beat Trump,” Kennedy wrote on X on Friday. “Can someone make this make sense?”

Kennedy convened a press conference on Wednesday in New York City attempting to flip the script on Biden, claiming that the president cannot beat Trump in a three-way contest and that he is, in his own estimation, the true “spoiler” – a point he would likely address in a debate setting.

Democrats were quick to call out Kennedy’s briefing as merely a gimmick to divert the focus away from his own long-shot effort. 

“Nothing but a media stunt meant to distract from the fact that he has no path to getting the 270 electoral college votes needed to win,” said Doug Gordon, a Democratic strategist.

“Since he can’t win, his candidacy will only serve to take votes away from other candidates. And no stunt will change that,” Gordon said. “Staying in a race you have no path to winning is the definition of a spoiler.”

Kall, the presidential debate scholar, expressed skepticism about Kennedy qualifying through the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the body that’s sponsored all general election presidential debates for decades. One of the CPD requirements, along with a 15 percent threshold in qualified polls, is that a given candidate’s name must appear on enough state ballots to have “at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority” in 2024. Critics say that could be tough for Kennedy.

The Trump campaign has its own concerns with the process. Frustrated with the CPD’s September start date, it called this week for other networks to go around the system and host debates outside of that schedule. 

“If we go back to the really old setup where it’s just different networks [hosting debates] and they would have the ability to have their own criteria,” Kall said, then Kennedy’s participation might be more likely — though Trump and Biden may have to negotiate

Whether or not Kennedy qualifies for the stage, the current and former president have “a lot more to gain from debating” than not, said Tammy Vigil, a Boston University professor of media science with a focus on political campaigns. 

“He’d have to really make a surge in support,” Vigil said of Kennedy. “I don’t think it’s very likely, although it would be really interesting to see that debate.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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