RFK’s veep pick could be a gamechanger

What if a running mate was made of money?

Independent vice presidential candidate Nicole Shanahan speaks during a campaign event to announce Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pick for a running mate on March 26, 2024 (Getty Images)
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Welcome to Thunderdome, where this week we have the first named vice presidential candidate from a 2024 challenger — Nicole Shanahan, whom I know little about outside of this glossy profile in People magazine. Forget the child of immigrants rags to riches story or any of that stuff. On paper she seems like an extremely wealthy progressive California attorney with all the various interests of such a type — yoga, natural living, meeting your third spouse at Burning Man and so on. But none of that matters, and none of it will matter — which is why this…

Welcome to Thunderdome, where this week we have the first named vice presidential candidate from a 2024 challenger — Nicole Shanahan, whom I know little about outside of this glossy profile in People magazine. Forget the child of immigrants rags to riches story or any of that stuff. On paper she seems like an extremely wealthy progressive California attorney with all the various interests of such a type — yoga, natural living, meeting your third spouse at Burning Man and so on. But none of that matters, and none of it will matter — which is why this choice strikes me as potentially ingenious on the part of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Understand this: no one, absolutely no one, votes for a president based on his or her vice presidential candidate. No one voted for Joe because of Kamala, Trump because of Pence, Obama because of Joe, or George W. because of Cheney, and on and on. Voters just don’t think that way. A vice president can only become a drag; they’re never a reason to vote for the guy at the top. Political obsessives overthink this. And while I am a bit surprised that RFK didn’t choose the type I assumed he would — a Rust Belt type who would double down on his message to the working class — the more you think about it, the more this move makes sense.

Imagine if instead of being a warm bucket of spit, a vice president was a human treasure chest? Because that’s what this California woman looks like to me.

Above all, RFK’s campaign still needs ballot access — while the campaign claims to have met signature requirements in multiple swing states, it is only officially on the Utah ballot at the moment — and will have to fight the Democratic legal machine tooth and claw to get it. The capability to instantly inject $200 million into that effort is a potential gamechanger.

Imagine if this RFK State of the Union ad or excerpts of it were playing round the clock on YouTube, and you get the idea. There’s no need to run things through clunky super PACs — the funding is coming from inside the house! And while naming someone this progressive may preclude RFK’s nascent attempt to reach out to the Libertarian Party, that’s hardly a sure thing. Shanahan’s money is a sure thing, and for someone who’s already the highest rated candidate in personal approval, it could be the difference between a candidacy that matters and one that doesn’t.

Nearly all the analysis of RFK’s effect as a third-party candidate has been through the lens of the two major parties, and which side he takes more from. Statistically, most polling shows it’s almost even, with a slightly higher number coming from Democrats disappointed in Biden than from anti-Trump Republicans. In the latest Fox News poll, a Trump-Biden head to head shows Trump with a five-point lead. When you add third-party candidates into the picture, it once again shows Trump with a five-point lead.

Part of what’s driving this is that RFK’s appeal is less about taking away diehard partisans from backing their party leader — it’s about speaking to disaffected voters, people who’ve dropped out of the political scene for one reason or another. Consider this RFK voter from a piece in today’s Politico:

[Burke] Cahill, fifty, is a formerly reliable Democratic voter who was alienated by what he sees as a leftward drift into policies he can’t abide — like a Covid-19 vaccine mandate that almost cost him his firefighting job. On Tuesday, he got up early, driving nearly two hours from the Sacramento area to Oakland, just so he could witness — in person — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announcing his running mate. (That would be attorney/philanthropist/documentary producer/fellow former Democrat Nicole Shanahan.) As Cahill sees it, Kennedy’s fierce independence from a sclerotic two-party system is just what the country needs.

Kennedy, he tells me as he heads into a rally for RFK Jr., has what it takes to heal the partisan wounds bedeviling the nation. His relatives, on the other hand, aren’t convinced. To the contrary. The Cahills are distantly related to the Kennedys and Cahill says he “grew up holding the Kennedy family as royalty.” His embrace of a RFK Jr., a passionate anti-vaxxer at odds with his own family, has opened a rift.

“They’re old-school Democrats, and they think they’re being loyal,” Cahill says of his family. “This can’t even be talked about without it being contentious.”

And then there’s this:

On the way in, Delane Dale, a quality assurance director from San Jose, fretted about Kennedy aiding Trump “by taking votes from Biden” and wondered about the family’s transformation. She was driven there by a form of morbid curiosity. “I love the Kennedys,” she says. “What happened to this guy?”

She and her partner had shown up to heckle Kennedy. But after the rally, Dale says they’ve had something of a change of heart: They were impressed by both by RFK Jr. and what his surrogates have to say.

The threat of a second Trump term “still scares me,” Dale says. But she listened when Kennedy and Shanahan talked about contaminated food and soil. Pandemic shutdowns had exacted a toll on her family and a college-aged son.

Maybe she was open to voting Kennedy after all.

“I’m thinking about it,” Dale says. “Trump’s terrifying. But at the same time, I learned a lot.”

Thanks to the Shanahan pick, RFK looks to have a lot more people learning about him in the coming months. For both the major candidates, that could spell chaos.

Culture, not class, is redefining politics

Nate Silver writes in his (strongly recommended) Substack:

Again, this is preliminary — it’s only March. But the polls show that Biden’s decline relative to 2020 is entirely among voters making $50k or less. He’s doing just as well as in 2020 with the $100k+ group and roughly as well among the middle class.

Could that be a hangover from inflation? Perhaps. Inflation is generally thought to hit the poor harder, in part because the wealthy are more likely to have net worth in real estate (which can be an inflation pass-through if housing prices are rising with everything else) or the stock market (also something of an inflation hedge, although that story is more complicated). Whether the most recent bout of inflation during Biden’s term disproportionately affected the poor is less clear, however

But all of that assumes that economic voting is a thing when it may have become less of one. Certainly, class politics have become trickier to navigate for Democrats. They represent the cultural and intellectual elite, which isn’t entirely new; Hollywood and academia have long been left-coded. But they are also increasingly the party of the economic elite, if only because the coattails of educational polarization drag some high-income earners into the Democratic coalition.

Sometimes this makes for strange bedfellows. Obama’s rise was correlated with the rise of Silicon Valley and the often very wealthy tech elite. That relationship is becoming rocky; Silicon Valley elites — by which I mean VCs and founders, not rank-and-file tech workers — are sour with Democrats over what I call Social Justice Leftism but everyone else calls wokeness. I spoke with enough Silicon Valley types for my forthcoming book to believe those concerns are sincere — however, cultural issues can also be a convenient scapegoat because it’s in the economic interests of these Silicon Valley leaders to vote Republican for lower taxes and fewer regulations on business.

You can tell something of the same story for finance. The finance guys I know are liberal-ish on social issues, but it doesn’t take that much to push them into complaints about high taxes, how the private schools they’re sending their kids to have become too left-wing, and so on. Now, finance and tech may not cost Democrats all that many votes, or at least not outside of California, Connecticut and New York. But they exert pressure on the party through their financial and cultural influence.

Meanwhile, some of the policies that Democrats advocate for benefit the managerial and professional class more than the working poor. Student loan debt cancellation by definition helped Democrats’ college-educated coalition, but it was actually somewhat economically regressive. The SALT tax deduction that suburban Democrats in high-tax states advocate for is highly regressive, meanwhile. Covid lockdowns are a more subtle example; work-from-home benefitted the laptop class more than essential workers or small-business owners.

Don’t get me wrong; if I were a poor person voting solely out of economic interest, I’d vote for Biden and be thankful for the strong labor market recovery. And I’d be carefully tracking Republican efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security.

But some of the other things I’d want, like a public option for healthcare, have been low priorities for the administration. And some things about Biden’s messaging would turn me off, like the emphasis on Trump, Trump, Trump. In Biden’s re-election kickoff speech in January, he mentioned “democracy” thirty-one times and Social Security zero times. Personally, I’m somewhat persuaded by the “democracy is on the ballot” stuff or at least some diluted version of it. But I’m not the sort of voter Biden needs to win over. It’s messaging targeted at the educated classes, not the working class.

Class depolarization also makes it harder for either party to tout its economic accomplishments. Take a look at (or read the transcript of) Reagan’s 1984 convention speech.

Reagan is very focused on a single message here, which I’ll paraphrase as follows: Democrats may say they’re the party of the working class, but look at the scoreboard — it’s actually Republican policies that are lifting the economy up.

That’s a powerful message, because it ran parallel to what was then a prominent political fault line between the rich (Republican) and the poor (Democrats). Reagan was saying: I’m the guy for people like you. It cleverly exploited class politics. And it worked: Reagan won 26 percent (!) of Democrats in 1984. Meanwhile, when the economy performed well during a Democratic presidency, a Democratic nominee could say the same thing: I’m the guy for people like you, and the condition of the economy proves it. It was economics as culture wars, not just for its own sake.

With class lines muddled, it’s harder to make that argument. Republicans are the party of rich guys in manufacturing, fossil fuels and real estate, but Democrats are the party of rich guys on Wall Street, and in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Republicans are the party of the white working class, but Democrats are the party of the Black and Hispanic working class. The parties can bend their pitch to the contours of this more complicated fault zone. But “it’s the economy, stupid” is no longer as much of a straight line through it.

Obama and Clinton come to Biden’s aid

Fearing a legacy-breaking loss.

As the election approaches, President Joe Biden is making regular calls to former President Barack Obama to catch up on the race or to talk about family. But Obama is making calls of his own to Jeffrey Zients, the White House chief of staff, and to top aides at the Biden campaign to strategize and relay advice.

This level of engagement illustrates Obama’s support for Biden, but also what one of his senior aides characterized as Obama’s grave concern that Biden could lose to former President Donald Trump. The aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that Obama has “always” been worried about a Biden loss. And so, the aide added, he is prepared to “eke it out” alongside his former vice president in an election that could come down to slim margins in a handful of states.

Perhaps for the first time, the two are on the same page about Biden’s future. In a sign of things to come, they are to appear together, with former President Bill Clinton, at a major fundraiser for the Biden campaign at Radio City Music Hall in New York on Thursday.

Grab bag

Byron York on the latest Fox News poll

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RNC struggling with staffing in swing states

Ronna McDaniel and the newsroom power shift

Why the RNC should ignore NBC News now

One more thing

There is something deeply ironic about the reaction from the resistance left to the news that a California judge has ruled in favor of attorney John Eastman’s disbarment. People who hate Trump world obviously greeted the news with glee, but the actual effect could be to boost Donald Trump’s chances of avoiding legal consequences. How can you penalize him when he’s the client getting terrible advice from his attorney, advice that he followed because he trusted said attorney? The lawfare efforts to go after the former president always seem to turn inward on themselves and tie the resistance into knots — it’s one of Trump’s most consistent super powers.