Brain-Wormed RFK Jr. Puts a Number on the Value of Name Recognition

Elections RFK Jr.
Brain-Wormed RFK Jr. Puts a Number on the Value of Name Recognition

One year ago, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. convinced some folks he could play a spoiler in the Democratic primary, as a wave of Democrats unhappy with the president sought out alternatives and landed on him. Joe Biden has the lowest favorability ratings of any incumbent president ever, and a man buoyed by the most famous name in Democratic politics had genuine political winds at his back.

Fast-forward one year later and it’s clear that RFK Jr.’s biggest legacy from this presidential election may be revealing the fact that this anti-vaxxer literally has brain worms. Also, he may have affixed a hard number to the value of top-shelf name recognition.

This man is a real-world experiment in more ways than one.

Name recognition may be the most important factor in determining who wins elections, likely related to the fact that about one-third of registered voters don’t know the name of their party’s candidate for Congress. Donald Trump benefited mightily from it in 2016, and the 2020 Democratic primary was won by the candidate with the broadest name recognition as well.

If all you ever did to rebut any campaign argument was say “stfu name recognition” and point at the candidate with that advantage, you’d be right the majority of the time. The reason candidates spend so much money on advertising and place campaign signs everywhere is largely so voters can become more familiar with their name.

It may sound dismaying for political junkies who believe in policy and a better world and all that idealistic stuff that has long since been beaten out of seasoned political observers like me, but the fact of the matter is that Americans generally vote for the name they know. This is how you wind up with a dynamic where nearly three-quarters of this country has a negative opinion of Congress but generally like their own congressman.

When RFK Jr. announced his candidacy, most voters didn’t know that he was a kook who only existed on the fringes of American politics, just that he shared the same last name and lineage with one of America’s most beloved presidents. This was a perfect opportunity to gauge exactly how valuable name recognition is for a Kennedy.

The gulf between the gravitas Kennedy’s name carries and his batshit insane ideas is wider than the Pacific Ocean. There are obviously adjustments you have to make on the downside to account for his unique brand of self-destructiveness dragging his negatives down, but his descent into reality has provided a ballpark figure for this question of how far can name recognition alone carry an empty suit.

The answer is pretty far!

On July 1st last year, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, RFK Jr. was viewed favorably by 47% of Americans versus just 23% who were aware of the things he has said and done. Over the course of the next year, more people became aware of the things he has said and done, and as of June 1st, 42% view RFK Jr. unfavorably versus 35% still defending his nonsense.

That’s a swing of 30 points from 24.6% net favorable to 6.6% net unfavorable today. Let’s assume that extra 6.6% is brain worm magic. His fall from grace implies that top-shelf name recognition alone is worth roughly a 25% boost to your net approval rating right out of the gates.

Name recognition is an electoral head start on your opponent, and RFK Jr. has finally helped us measure perhaps the most famous name in American politics. So thank you brain worm man, this has been a question gnawing at the back of my head ever since I first began learning about political science in 2005, and your descent from “oh cool a Kennedy!” to “oh God this fuckin’ guy again” helped finally put a number on it.

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