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Aaron Rodgers for vice president? What to know about Robert Kennedy Jr.’s running-mate strategy.

Kennedy is trying to solidify himself as the outsider candidate

For the last two months, U.S. politics was focused on President Biden and former President Trump, as both men competed in multiple state contests and won their party nominations.

During that time, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. receded from public view.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks with members of the press at Trump Tower in New York City on Jan. 10, 2017.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks with members of the press at Trump Tower in New York City on Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

But Kennedy, who is running for president as an independent, has reinserted himself into the news by floating potential running mates that have drawn skepticism but ultimately the most valuable currency in politics: attention.

Democrats start sweating over RFK

Kennedy is currently polling at around 12 percent in an average of public survey results. That’s nowhere near enough for him to win the presidency — but it’s the kind of support that could definitely be decisive in determining whether Trump or Biden wins.

Democrats are already putting together a major operation to drag down Kennedy and other third-party candidates they see as putting Biden’s reelection at risk, NBC News reports.

A volunteer from No Labels, a third-party political group, collects signatures at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to gather support ahead of the 2024 presidential election
A volunteer from No Labels, a third-party political group, collects signatures at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to gather support ahead of the 2024 presidential election. (Bonnie Cash/Reuters)

Kennedy looks to regain attention

The timing of Kennedy’s public deliberation about his running mate is shrewd: He needs to reemerge from the news coverage blackout that was caused by the fact that he did not run in any of the state primaries.

Kennedy — the son of Robert Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general and senator — has said he’ll announce his choice on March 26. It’s an attempt to draw the free attention that comes from news coverage, discussion and buzz — what political professionals call “earned media.”

Earned media is obviously something a campaign does not have to pay for. But it’s also validating for a candidate, even if they don’t control exactly what the message is as much as they do in a paid advertisement, which is known as paid media.

Democratic 2020 presidential candidates, including, from left, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, then former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders
Democratic 2020 presidential candidates, including, from left, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, then former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, walk arm-in-arm with local African American leaders during the MLK Day Parade in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 20, 2020. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

The logic of Kennedy’s potential running mates

Some of Kennedy’s potential running mates are somewhat conventional choices. A sitting U.S. senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, is the clearest example of this. Paul is an iconoclast in Congress but still has significant experience in politics

Then there is a pair of slightly unconventional choices. Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is an Independent from Hawaii. She is a military combat veteran who served in Congress from 2013 to 2021 and ran for president in 2020, all as a Democrat.

But she’s also had an unorthodox and at times befuddling political trajectory, endorsing Bernie Sanders in 2016, meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in 2017, and then becoming a Fox News mainstay over the last few years. She is now mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump as well.

Andrew Yang is a former tech entrepreneur who is fairly well known for his presidential campaign in 2020, which gained support from voters looking for something new.

But the final two names mentioned by Kennedy are the oddest. Predictably, these are the ones that have generated the most news coverage and discussion, garnering that precious resource, attention, for Kennedy.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, like Paul, has experience in government. But Ventura was a non-politician’s politician, best known for his career as a pro wrestler.

And Ventura has been out of government for 20 years. He is 72 years old. (Kennedy is 70 himself.)

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in November 2023. (Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports)

The biggest name: Aaron Rodgers

Finally, there’s NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Of all these names, Rodgers is the one with no qualifications for holding any public office, much less the vice presidency. He has no experience in politics and no expertise in any of the many issues that a national leader would be trusted with managing.

But Rodgers is controversial, and — like Kennedy — he taps into the conspiracy-minded demographic in America.

Most of all, Rodgers generates outrage, which is a particularly virulent form of attention.

Shortly after Kennedy floated Rodgers as a possible vice presidential candidate, CNN reported that the former Super Bowl MVP had told people he believed that the devastating 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was an “inside job” undertaken by the federal government.

Such claims have long been debunked by witnesses and in court, and the CNN report was quickly seized on by pro-Democratic groups.

Rodgers has since said that he believed the shooting was an “absolute tragedy” and that he has “never been of the opinion that the events did not take place.”

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. poses for a photograph with a member of the audience wearing a Make America Great Again cap.
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. poses for a photograph with a member of the audience wearing a Make America Great Again cap at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 12. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

A consistent outsider theme

Each of the names floated by Kennedy has a common characteristic: They’re all people who have questioned conventional wisdom.

That’s Kennedy’s core identity as a politician. He was an environmental lawyer who fought pollution, and then over the past decade or two has questioned the safety and efficacy of numerous vaccines.

COVID-19 made him into a folk hero to those who believe that social media companies were wrong to remove from their platforms or limit the spread of claims opposing the evolving medical consensus during the pandemic.

A 2021 Associated Press investigation into Kennedy’s claims about the COVID vaccine found that he had contributed to “a disinformation echo chamber that reinforces false narratives that downplay the dangers of COVID-19 while exaggerating the risks of the vaccine.”

But Kennedy is now an avatar for a belief system that has become more popular in recent years: that the world is controlled by shadowy unseen forces who manipulate the public for money and power.

And each of the names floated by Kennedy as a potential running mate is a person who also appeals to that cohort in American society. So by associating with them, Kennedy is trying to grow his appeal and popularity among what would be his political base.