Frustration with the two men likely to be the major parties’ nominees has led voters to entertain the idea of other options, New York Times/Siena College polls found.
A looming rematch next year between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump has left voters deeply dissatisfied with their options, longing for alternatives and curious about independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., according to new polls of six battleground states conducted by The New York Times and Siena College.
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are viewed unfavorably by a majority of voters in these states, one-fifth of voters don’t like either of them, and enthusiasm about the coming election is down sharply compared with a poll conducted before the 2020 contest.
That frustration and malaise have prompted voters to entertain the idea of other options. When asked about the likeliest 2024 matchup, Mr. Biden versus Mr. Trump, only 2 percent of those polled said they would support another candidate. But when Mr. Kennedy’s name was included as an option, nearly a quarter said they would choose him.
That number almost surely inflates the support of Mr. Kennedy, the political scion and vaccine skeptic, because two-thirds of those who said they would back him had said earlier that they would definitely or probably vote for one of the two front-runners.
The polling results include registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The findings suggest that Mr. Kennedy is less a fixed political figure in the minds of voters than he is a vessel to register unhappiness about the choice between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.
Voters who dislike both major-party candidates — a group known to pollsters and political campaigns as “double haters” — have been instrumental in the outcomes of the last two presidential elections, and there are now more than twice as many of them as there were four years ago. Mr. Trump carried them when he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Mr. Biden won them when he ousted Mr. Trump four years later.
Now Mr. Trump has more support from these voters in five of the six battleground states polled. Only in Arizona did more double haters say they would vote for Mr. Biden.
Overall, 42 percent of those polled who did not like both candidates said they planned to vote for Mr. Trump, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Biden and 24 percent who remained undecided.
“Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not the answer to 2024 problems,” said Dylan Banks, 35, an artist from Atlanta who considers himself an independent leftist. “I have a hard time seeing myself not vote in 2024, but I do not see myself voting for Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris for that matter.”
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump fared worse than a generic candidate from each man’s party, the polls found. While 44 percent of battleground-state voters said they would vote for Mr. Biden, 48 percent said they would back a generic Democrat. For Mr. Trump, the number increased from 48 percent to 52 percent for a generic Republican.
The distaste for both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump is likely to increase the attention surrounding candidates like Mr. Kennedy, who dropped out of the Democratic primary race last month to run as an independent, and Cornel West, the liberal professor who quit the Green Party to mount his own independent campaign.
Jacqueline Corcoran, 49, who lives in Carson City, Nev., and works as an operations manager in a warehouse, said she would vote for Mr. Biden in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Trump but was attracted to the idea of voting for Mr. Kennedy if he were also on the ballot.
Mr. Biden, she said, “doesn’t embody what I want for this country, but when you feel like you only have two choices, you’re going to pick the better of the two.”
Ms. Corcoran added, “I’d probably vote for a trained monkey before I would vote for Donald Trump.”
Ballot access will be a major hurdle for independent candidates. Simply qualifying for the general election as a political independent is a multimillion-dollar proposition — and that’s before lawyers for the major parties try to block them, or at least bury them under a mountain of legal fees. Mr. Kennedy’s campaign on Sunday solicited $25 from supporters to subsidize a signature-gathering team to help him qualify for ballots.
Democratic officials have already begun an extensive push to slow ballot-access efforts by third-party and independent entities including the centrist group No Labels, which has qualified in a dozen states so far. No Labels officials have said they plan to choose a candidate at an April convention if Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump appear to be the major-party nominees.
The glimmer of an opening for outsider candidates stems from how unpopular both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are in the presidential battlegrounds.
Majorities of voters in the Times/Siena polls — 57 percent for Mr. Biden and 56 percent for Mr. Trump — said they felt unfavorably toward the two men, including majorities in each state and across every demographic group except Black voters, who maintained a favorable view of the president.
“There’s a lot of people in the United States and you’re telling me that these are the only two guys we can come up with,” said Julie Mock, 60, a banker in Las Vegas. “Really? This is it? This is our choices? You know, we really cannot come up with somebody who’s a little bit more vigorous and younger?”
More voters in the six presidential battleground states felt unfavorably toward Mr. Biden now than in 2019 or 2020, while Mr. Trump’s favorability was largely unchanged, the polls found. Interviews with voters polled showed that for many, the negative feelings about Mr. Biden stemmed from doubts about his mental acuity.
“The man is cognitively absent, so he cannot react, he cannot articulate, he cannot be the man that’s at the podium speaking to this nation,” said Robert Lawrence Saad, a tax lawyer from Clinton Township, Mich.
Mr. Saad, 71, has little appetite for another Trump presidency. “He’s actually an idiot,” he said. Given the two options, he said, he would leave the line on his ballot blank. “I do that continually locally and nationally, if I have to,” he said.
The durability of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal to voters remains an open question. Shortly after he entered the Democratic primary race in April, polls found him drawing support from up to 20 percent of the party’s primary voters.
But as he gained more attention from the news media and articulated more positions that are out of step with the Democratic base, his numbers dropped to the low single digits.
Amy Striejewske, who is retired from the Air Force and lives in Marietta, Ga., said she would vote for Mr. Kennedy in a three-way race but for Mr. Trump if only he and Mr. Biden were on the ballot.
“We’re going to be moving backward with Trump, and that doesn’t mean in a bad way,” Ms. Striejewske, 44, said. “With Biden, we’re going to stay, I believe, at a standstill, if not decline again with the economic issues. You know, I remember paying 90 cents for a Gatorade. Now we’re up to like almost two, three dollars for just that.”
Not since George Wallace in 1968 has a presidential candidate outside the two major parties won a state in a presidential election. Ross Perot in 1992 was the last to even finish in second place in a state.
But plenty of third-party candidates have pulled enough votes from the leading figures to help tip the balance of elections, including Mr. Perot, Ralph Nader in 2000, and Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016.
As political polarization has increased over the last several decades — particularly since the mid 1990s — and people have become more hyperpartisan, there is even more reason to believe that third-party candidates say more about voter dissatisfaction with their party’s choices than about interest in an outsider candidate.
The question of Mr. Kennedy’s theoretical impact as an independent candidate has vexed officials in both parties since he left the Democratic primary.
The polls found that he pulled similar numbers of voters from Mr. Biden (21 percent) and Mr. Trump (23 percent), but the percentages varied by state. In narrowly divided contests, Mr. Kennedy could have the potential to swing the outcome. Mr. Kennedy’s presence helped Mr. Biden in Nevada and Pennsylvania, but aided Mr. Trump in Georgia, the polls found.
While Mr. Trump beat Mr. Biden in a two-way contest in Arizona and Pennsylvania, those states were a tie when the polls asked voters to also consider Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Trump’s lead in Georgia increased by a percentage point with Mr. Kennedy in the race, but in Wisconsin, Mr. Biden’s advantage remained the same — two points — when Mr. Kennedy was included.
Otis Riley, a maintenance director and engineer in Folcroft, Pa., said he would vote for Mr. Biden in a two-way contest with Mr. Trump but would pick Mr. Kennedy if all three candidates were on his Pennsylvania ballot.
“I actually don’t know a whole lot about Robert Kennedy, but I know pretty much about his father and how his father, before his demise, operated,” Mr. Riley, 56, said. “If his character’s anything similar to that, there’s where my choice would be directed.”