Will RFK Jr. qualify for the June presidential debate?

He'd be the first third-party candidate in a general election debate since 1992.

May 22, 2024, 4:53 PM

The 2024 election is already positioned to make history — Donald Trump is a convention away from becoming the first former president since 1892 to win a party’s nomination after leaving office, while his contest against President Joe Biden is the first presidential rematch since 1956. And now the debates, too, have broken with the past: Last week, CNN announced that Biden and Trump had agreed to meet on June 27, which, should it happen, would mark the earliest-ever general election debate in a presidential race. CNN’s event and a Sept. 10 debate announced by ABC News also circumvent the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has managed the process since 1988. This was something of a rare bipartisan move: The Republican National Committee had quit the CPD in 2022, Biden’s team wanted no audience and both campaigns desired an earlier debate than the CPD’s 2024 proposal called for.

Having secured their parties’ presumptive nominations for some time now, Biden and Trump are eager to face off and pitch their respective cases to American voters. But the potential for a third candidate to qualify has made a Biden-Trump debate anything but a foregone conclusion. Both CNN and ABC News laid out rules that could open the door for independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to participate — a possibility that seemingly frustrated Biden’s team. Were that to happen, Kennedy would be the first third-party presidential contender to make a debate since 1992. To qualify, candidates must attract at least 15 percent support in four national polls that meet CNN and ABC News’s respective standards, while also having ballot access in enough states to theoretically win 270 electoral votes — thresholds Kennedy has not yet met.

So how close is Kennedy to making it? We’ve taken a look at his standing in both polls and ballot access ahead of the June debate to see where things stand and just how realistic his chances are of qualifying for the initial event — even if doing so could end up scuttling the debates, should Biden opt out.

Two polls down, two to go

At this point, Kennedy looks to be halfway to meeting the polling requirement for CNN’s June 27 debate. CNN established a window for eligible polls from March 13 through June 20, while also laying out 12 pollsters and/or media outlets whose surveys would be acceptable for the purposes of qualification. The rules also mandate that eligible polls measure views among registered or likely voters.

Based on surveys released since mid-March that meet CNN’s requirements, Kennedy has two qualifying polls to his name: A pair of late April surveys from CNN/SSRS and Quinnipiac University, each of which found Kennedy attracting 16 percent among registered voters. In eight other eligible polls that tested Kennedy, he fell short of 15 percent.

That Kennedy already has two qualifying polls makes it a very real possibility that he could end up with four by June 20. For one thing, he came very close to 15 percent in some other qualifying surveys, including 14 percent in the registered voter samples of Marquette University Law School’s late March survey and Quinnipiac’s latest poll. More broadly, Kennedy is polling just above 10 percent in 538’s national polling average, so accounting for the variance we see from poll to poll, further 15 percent results are perfectly plausible. Additionally, the rules allow for multiple polls from the same pollster or sponsor to count toward qualification, so Kennedy would be able to count future polls from CNN/SSRS and Quinnipiac at that level of support.

At the same time, there might only be a handful of additional polls released in time to count for the CNN debate. Looking at recent national surveys, the universe of pollsters and sponsors who meet CNN’s standards includes about a dozen potential pollster/sponsor combinations that might release polls between now and late June. The most regular is Quinnipiac, which just released a survey today and puts out a national poll on a monthly basis, more or less, so it might offer one more survey before the debate. The between-poll timing for other outlets tends to be longer, so it’s hard to say how many more polls might come out in time for debate qualification. Of course, interest in the debate could drive media outlets and polling firms to ramp up their survey output as well. CNN/SSRS, with a direct connection to the first debate, would have a clear tie-in motivating the pollster and sponsor to put another poll in the field before late June.

Ballot access could be more complicated

The murkier part of the qualification rules lies in the requirement that candidates must also be on enough ballots to theoretically win 270 electoral votes, the minimum necessary to capture a majority in the Electoral College. At first blush, this rule would seemingly exclude Biden and Trump, because their parties won’t formally nominate them until after the CNN debate — the GOP convention is in July, the Democratic confab in August. However, CNN appears to have made allowances for the reality that Biden and Trump are their parties’ presumptive nominees. As a result, there’s every expectation that both, as the two major-party nominees, will be on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., totaling all 538 electoral votes in the Electoral College.

Kennedy, on the other hand, has a long way to go to secure ballot status in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes. Five states worth 35 electoral votes have confirmed to ABC News that Kennedy has made their ballots: Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma and Utah. Kennedy’s campaign claims that it has made the ballot in 10 other states worth 166 electoral votes, including the most vote-rich states of California and Texas. Overall, this would bring Kennedy to a potential total of 201 electoral votes, 69 electoral votes short of debate qualification if each of those states confirms that he has qualified by June 20, with additional states needed to make up the difference.

Historically, high-profile third-party or independent contenders like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and John Anderson in 1980 made all 51 ballots, and Kennedy seems likely to eventually make the ballot in most places. But in past cycles, questions about ballot access usually had been answered by the time the general election debates rolled around. The unprecedented early date for the first 2024 debate casts doubt on whether Kennedy can attain ballot access in enough states in time to qualify. His campaign says it will have submitted signatures in enough states for 270 electoral votes, but that doesn't mean Kennedy's name will officially be on the ballot in each of those states by then.

After all, the timing for each state’s electoral administration to confirm that Kennedy has qualified will vary. For instance, Kennedy’s campaign said it submitted nearly 246,000 petition signatures in Texas, more than twice as many as the roughly 113,000 required. The Texas secretary of state’s office confirmed on May 13 that Kennedy’s campaign had turned in its signatures, but it did not give a timeline for how long it would take to check their validity, so it’s unclear whether the state’s ballot status process will make Kennedy’s status official in time for the debate. Furthermore, six other states where Kennedy has claimed-but-unconfirmed ballot status have deadlines in July or August for submitting signatures. There’s no guarantee that each of these states will have formally placed Kennedy’s name on the ballot in time, either.

To this point, consider the example of Perot’s first presidential bid around the time he suspended his campaign on July 16, 1992 (he later jumped back into the race in early October). News reports at the time found that he had qualified for the ballot in 24 states worth 257 electoral votes, slightly less than the 270-majority mark. This is not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison with Kennedy, who has accepted already-established ballot lines from minor parties in California, Delaware and Michigan in a way Perot did not in 1992 (California’s secretary of state hasn’t confirmed Kennedy’s ballot access yet, but the American Independent Party has nominated him there). So while some states have changed their rules and timelines for ballot qualification since 1992, the Perot example demonstrates how realistic it would be for a major third-party contender to not necessarily have ballot access in enough states to meet the 270 mark by late June, despite easily getting there by November.


Over the next month, Kennedy could qualify for the June 27 debate. That would be a history-making event: Only twice since the dawn of presidential debates in 1960 has a third-party candidate made a general election debate stage. In 1992, Perot participated in all three debates against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. In 1980, Anderson debated Republican Ronald Reagan once without the participation of incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who refused to take part because Anderson had been invited.

Could an incumbent once again skip out on a debate in 2024? And would a withdrawal by Biden scuttle the debate altogether? Ahead of the debate announcement, Biden’s campaign seemed under the impression that it had only agreed to a one-on-one with Trump, making it possible that Biden could decide to withdraw should Kennedy qualify (Trump has said he’d be open to Kennedy joining in). On the one hand, skipping out on a debate could make Biden look bad. On the other hand, his campaign wants to emphasize to voters that the election is, realistically, going to be a two-horse race. A Kennedy lectern, no matter how historical, would defeat that purpose.

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