KEENE, N.H. — Charles Stephens voted for Donald Trump and then Joe Biden. Suzanne Stagner was a Libertarian. Lisa Jane Lipkin, until recently, described herself as a “New York intellectual, Jewish, bleeding-heart liberal.” Now, she lives in New Hampshire, and has ditched all those descriptors, save the Judaism.
The three of them gathered with more than a dozen others in a homey vegetarian restaurant here recently to hear directly from the source of their unlikely unification. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a black sheep of the country’s foremost Democratic political dynasty, spoke on a Zoom call to supporters across the country, preaching the importance of free expression and pledging to “take our country back.”
Three months into his quixotic bid for the presidency, Kennedy has cobbled together a motley coalition of Democrats, Republicans, political neophytes, and recent converts — a group that seems unlikely to land him in the White House but demonstrates how far a candidate can go with a familiar name and a conspiratorial bent.
Supporters planned gatherings to hear from him on Zoom in venues as varied as the attendees they drew: a home in the Hamptons, a picnic table in Golden Gate Park, or in the case of the Keene group, an organic potluck featuring carrot sticks, homemade sauerkraut, and original music sung by Lipkin, with a guitarist.
Kennedy is an environmental lawyer best known these days for decades of antivaccine activism, as well as offensive and conspiratorial remarks, including comparing COVID-19 lockdowns to the oppression faced by Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Recently, he suggested that COVID was “ethnically targeted” to attack “certain races disproportionately” — comments that were widely condemned as racist and antisemitic.
He is seeking the Democratic nomination, and running on his family name. “I’m a Kennedy Democrat,” declares his campaign merchandise. Promotional videos prominently feature both his father and uncle, complete with a 1960s campaign jingle.
But Kennedy’s appeal stretches far beyond the nostalgic-for-Camelot Democrats who helped put his relatives into office for generations — and polling shows he is actually more popular among Republicans.
A review of campaign donations, and interviews with more than a dozen enthusiastic supporters from across the country, reveals a wide range of visions for a Kennedy presidency, not all of them compatible. Backers, by turns, described Kennedy as someone who will fight above all else for clean water and clean air; is concerned with economic stratification and American dollars flying overseas to foreign wars; is part of the American political system, or, on the other hand, very much outside the establishment; is someone with the best of the Democratic Party and best of the Republican Party; and is a visionary who bucks both.
His supporters “are hungry for someone who can speak to both sides. Someone like me, I have felt isolated on an island politically throughout all of the polarization during the Trump years,” said Julia Glidden, 57, of Lyman, N.H. A tech executive and independent voter, Glidden voted for Barack Obama and Trump, and said she was so “repulsed” by how Democrats handled episodes such as Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings that she vowed she would “never vote for a Democrat again if this is how the party behaves.”
“Kennedy is the guy who can bring me back home,” she said.
Asked why they plan to vote for Kennedy, supporters say they see him as someone who can unite the country. They cited concerns about the environment, skepticism about government and pharmaceutical institutions, and an insistence on “freedom” of all kinds, including and especially the autonomy to decline the COVID-19 vaccines, despite them saving countless lives globally.
For some, the appeal of Kennedy includes his place in a storied Democratic establishment. They look back with fondness at the Kennedy family members their own parents supported. But other Kennedy supporters seem to have little in common other than their countercultural inclinations, an antiestablishment sentiment that knits together the fringes of the right and left wings. Kennedy is “not afraid to support unpopular perspectives,” Dean Landis, a Miami Beach financier and Kennedy donor, told the Globe in an e-mail.
“Within the Democratic Party, he’s your best anti-Democrat,” said Mark Stewart Greenstein, an independent candidate for Hartford mayor. He ran for president himself as a Democrat in 2016, then for Connecticut governor in 2018 under the banner of the Amigo Constitution Liberty Party. “I like that.”
That reputation may be earning Kennedy support, but it has not necessarily endeared him to the group he most immediately needs to win over: the Democratic primary electorate.
Kennedy consistently polls in the low double digits among Democrats, though most surveys show him trailing President Biden by some 50 percentage points. In a Quinnipiac University poll released last month, 48 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of Kennedy, compared to 22 percent who said they did not. Democrats reported the direct inverse: They disliked Kennedy by a 2-to-1 margin.
In a University of New Hampshire poll, the words Democratic primary voters associated most with Kennedy were far from flattering: “crazy,” “nutjob,” and “conspiracy.”
“If I didn’t think he was so dangerous, I would find it sad,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair. “I don’t personally know anyone who supports him. No one. Zero. Zilch. Nada.”
That leaves Kennedy holding together a hodgepodge group of supporters, some of whom may need to change their voter registration to participate in the Democratic primary — an obstacle, to say the least, for a long-shot candidate challenging a sitting president for the nomination.
Dennis Kucinich, the former Democratic congressman and Kennedy’s campaign manager, said it’s an advantage that Kennedy appeals to so many different types of people. “That’s called a president of the United States,” he said.
“Mr. Kennedy’s support is so broad, he can win the general election. If the Democrats want to win, they’ve got to consider his candidacy,” Kucinich added. “He can bring people to vote who’ve never voted before. He can cause Republicans to cross over. He attracts independent voters.”
As far as the Democratic primary, Kucinich said, the campaign is educating supporters state by state about eligibility requirements.
Rebecca Stephan, an art gallery owner in Anchorage, said she supports Kennedy because he is an “independent thinker” who “knows how to connect.”
People are looking for “something that bridges the divide between Trump and Biden,” Stephan added. “I think that’s why he’s attractive.”
Kennedy’s campaign raised nearly $6.4 million through the end of June, putting him on par with or even ahead of several well-known GOP candidates. A super PAC backing his candidacy raised $9.8 million through the end of June, and said it raised another $6.5 million in July. The haul includes $5 million from Timothy Mellon, a major GOP donor who has backed Trump and contributed to a fund set up by Governor Greg Abbott, a Texas Republican, to pay for a border wall.
Corey Nicholl, who hosted a watch party for Kennedy’s online event last month at his farm in Nampa, Idaho, said he last got deeply involved in a presidential race in 2008. That year, he and other friends in Berkeley, Calif., helped promote their spiritual teacher Frank Moore as a write-in candidate, landing him on the presidential ballot in 25 states. It was an unlikely bid that Nicholl said had a “liberating and uplifting effect for people.”
Moore, a shaman and performance artist, “said it was perhaps one of his best performances,” Nicholl recalled fondly. With Kennedy, “on some level, it’s the same thing: You just have to go for what you believe is the right thing, no matter what you think the chances are.”
Supporters said they’re grateful to Kennedy for voicing the unpopular opinions they themselves held during the most acute days of the pandemic, lending the beliefs a credibility that comes with his family name. Often leaning on debunked conspiracy theories, Kennedy has repeatedly questioned public health guidance and the safety of the vaccine. Some statements were deemed so false and dangerous that he was banned from Instagram in 2021.
“We’re definitely kindred spirits,” said Ricky Arriola, a Democrat and Miami Beach city commissioner who in 2021 was censured by the local Democratic Party for what it described as “conspiracist screeds [that] have often veered into racist and classist bigotry.”
“The Democratic machine clearly wants to cancel Bobby and all challengers to anoint President Biden,” he said. “Politically, does he need to watch his words? Then he wouldn’t be Bobby.”
Kennedy has been criticized for remarks that draw on bigoted stereotypes — most recently for claims, captured on video, that Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people are “most immune” from COVID-19.
In Keene, Lipkin rejected any suggestion that Kennedy is antisemitic, claiming that some of his more controversial remarks have been misreported and misinterpreted.
Performing before Kennedy came on screen, Lipkin sang a number of songs about autonomy and sovereignty — “you’ll notice a theme,” she told the room. Her right foot tapping steadily, she recruited the crowd to join in for the refrain, harmonizing with them as they sang, “free, free, free.”
Kennedy is a “speaker of truth,” Lipkin said in an interview later in the evening, and “the truth will set you free.”