RFK Jr. and the growing influence of conspiracy theories in political betting markets

Patrick Flynn

14 July 2023

The Kennedy family aren’t strangers to the world of conspiracism, to say the least. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert in the 1960s have fuelled numerous theories over the decades. As recently as 2021, QAnon supporters believed John F. Kennedy Jr. was set to announce a presidential run alongside Donald Trump, with one small caveat: ‘John-John’ had been dead for 22 years.

Maybe the Q believers were half right because John Jr.’s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is now running and currently sits behind Joe Biden and Trump at odds of 12.5 (8%) to win the election next year, roughly the same price as he is to win the Democratic nomination.

Given the betting markets consider him to be the third most likely occupier of the Oval Office in 2025, you would be forgiven for wondering why you haven’t heard more about RFK Jr. and his campaign. His supporters would probably suggest there’s a media conspiracy at play, but the simpler answer is that all is not what it seems in the political betting markets — an increasingly common occurrence in recent years.

Some simple maths demonstrates that Kennedy’s odds do not add up. Even if we make a leap and accept that his price to win the Democratic nomination is correct, his odds on the outright market still make very little logical sense. 

Current second favourite in the 2024 Presidential Election outright market

With his equivalence in price across the two markets, we would either have to accept that Kennedy is some sort of electoral god who would hold a 100% chance of winning the presidency if he wins the Democratic nomination, or that he stands something like a 4% chance of losing the Democratic nomination and then running as an independent (or somehow, Republican) candidate and winning the presidency. 

The latter option would come in spite of the fact that a third party has not won a single US presidential election since the advent of the Democrats and Republicans as dominant forces in the 1850s and absolutely zero polling evidence to back up Kennedy’s supposed electoral superpowers. This lack of internal logic alone should make traders suspicious of his price.

Of the current runners in the Democratic primary, Kennedy sits at around 15% in the polls, compared to Biden’s 64% and Marianne Williamson’s 6%. In the event Biden drops out before the primaries, there is again no evidence that Kennedy will pick up his votes. In fact, he fares worse in sans-Biden polls, hovering around 5%.

Among other things, Kennedy is an anti-vaccine propagandist and promotes various other medical conspiracy theories, putting him way out of step with the Democratic Party base. A YouGov poll from July 2021 showed just 4% of Democrats said they wouldn’t get vaccinated for COVID-19, compared to 18% in the general population. With the latest data showing that 19% of Americans have not received at least one dose of the Coronavirus vaccine, that 4% figure should be a pretty accurate estimate for the share of unvaccinated Democrats.

Make no mistake, if a Kennedy nomination became an even remotely realistic prospect, the Democratic Party establishment would go into overdrive and his views on vaccines and other topics would be plastered everywhere. When it comes to politics (Democratic, at least), you cannot hide skeletons in your closet for long. Look at what happened to Michael Bloomberg in 2020 — the second he started to rise to prominence he was pulverised by Elizabeth Warren in the standout moment of her presidential campaign.

His position in the markets can only be explained by his presence in a heavily-online conspiracist network that somewhat transcends traditional labels of left and right — one which has gained traction in recent years of hyper-partisanship, social media echo chambers and misinformation, and accelerated during the pandemic.

If we look at those surrounding RFK Jr.’s campaign, things become a lot clearer. He has been endorsed by Jack Dorsey (former CEO of Twitter), praised by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Trump outriders Steve Bannon and Roger Stone, and interviewed by the conspiracy-lover’s equivalent of Mount Rushmore: Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Russell Brand and Elon Musk. 

Joe Biden: the current president is favourite to win the election in 2024

While not all these people neatly fit into each category, there remains an overlap between the conspiracy theorist, anti-woke and online cryptocurrency ecosystems, participants in which frequently make their way over to prediction markets.

Kennedy is just the latest in a line of conspiracy theory-fuelled candidates we’ve seen over the last few years. Back in 2020, Donald Trump — arguably the most prominent conspiracy theorist in contemporary politics — was still trading in the teens to be elected president on some platforms even after he had already lost the election.

In the London mayoral election in 2021, we saw a huge amount of money coming in to back independent candidate Brian Rose for London mayor at Smarkets, despite the man having almost zero chance of winning. Rose is a US-born podcaster who advertises get-rich-quick schemes, has frequently collaborated with conspiracy theorist David Icke, and just this week posted a video about Kennedy’s presidential campaign on his YouTube channel. 

Rose also regularly used his inflated odds in promotional material for his mayoral campaign, framing it as if his bid was building momentum and ‘the bookmakers’ were shortening his price without external involvement.

Whether it’s Donald Trump, Brian Rose, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or now RFK Jr, candidates connected to the online conspiracy theory ecosystem almost universally see their market prices completely disconnected from reality, either due to their supporters being disproportionately active in the markets or as an attempt at self-promotion.

Whether conspiracy theorists genuinely believe in these candidates’ electoral chances and see betting markets as a way of cashing in — or whether they are merely trying to use the markets to manufacture a reality that reflects their warped beliefs — is irrelevant. If you exist outside of this network and can see through it, there is often money to be made.

Backing Lula; backing Biden; backing Sadiq Khan for London mayor — all of these great value bets had one thing in common: trading against a candidate linked to conspiracy theories. Laying Kennedy for the Democratic nomination is the next to join this line of bets, and will generate an 8% return in around 12 months’ time if it comes off.

Patrick Flynn

14 July 2023

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