A new Quinnipiac University poll shows independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is attracting an eye-popping amount of support from voters and seemingly positioning himself as a serious threat to both parties.

The survey found that in a hypothetical three-way match-up in 2024, Kennedy would get the support of 22% of registered voters, former President Donald Trump would get 36%, and President Joe Biden would get 39%.

These numbers shouldn’t be taken as accurate predictions, but they should be taken at least a little bit seriously. I would advise against putting any money on this survey as a preview of the popular vote, given the nature of the general electorate and how far we are from Election Day.

But outsize interest in Kennedy could be seen as a tangible expression of a wider discontent with the two likely general election candidates, both of whom are unpopular and have glaring vulnerabilities. And combined with campaign finance reports that show Republican-leaning donors giving to Kennedy more often than Democratic-leaning donors, those poll numbers suggest that Trump may be at slightly greater risk than Biden in terms of losing voters to Kennedy’d tun.

Kennedy’s seeming popularity deserves a good heap of skepticism. As a general rule, poll numbers this far out aren’t reliable barometers of how voters will feel on Election Day, when the stakes are clearer and voters are thinking more strategically.

Kennedy, who dropped out of the Democratic primary campaign to pursue an independent bid in October, has the special quality of possessing a name that is not only instantly recognizable, but is also associated with political prestige and acumen.

It’s unclear how many people interested in this Kennedy are familiar with the scope of his political platform, have heard him speak or have taken note of his recent political trajectory from left-of-center environmentalist and vaccine skeptic to darling of the authoritarian right.

Some commentators see Kennedy’s Quinnipiac numbers as a sign that he could be the next Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who won 19% of the popular vote in 1992. But recall that Perot’s polling numbers much closer to the election greatly overestimated his performance.

In the summer of 1992 Perot was polling as the front-runner in the race against President George H.W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton. Perot’s 19% performance was undoubtedly a remarkable shock to the two-party system, but he secured roughly half the proportion of voters he was putting up in summer polling, and he failed to win a single electoral vote.

(To be fair, at least part of that discrepancy could be attributable to his decision to drop out of the race in the summer and then return in October, disrupting his momentum.) Today’s electorate is far more polarized than the ’90s electorate, with the parties much further apart on values and more internally ideologically homogenous. The difference between Trump and Biden, and their parties, is starker than between Bush and Clinton.

That all having been said, these numbers, should they continue to show up in polls, are striking. It’s just that they may say more about Trump and Biden than they say about Kennedy. Next year is shaping up to be a repeat of 2016 in that it is likely to pit two deeply unpopular candidates against each other, with each one hoping they’re disliked less than the other candidate.

In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton were both historically disliked candidates. In 2020, voters continued to hold an unfavorable view of Trump, but Biden was far less unpopular than Clinton. Since then, Biden has become deeply unpopular; a 2024 Biden-Trump rematch might bear a closer resemblance to the nose-holding ballot-casting of 2016 than it does to 2020’s. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump has pointed out that Kennedy is the runaway favorite among voters who view both major-party candidates unfavorably — a sign that he is the beneficiary of a broader discontent with what the major parties seem to be serving up.

Could Kennedy translate that discontent into actual votes beyond the usual few percentage points that third parties have garnered in recent elections? That’s unclear. But if he does, as of now it seems possible he might siphon off more Trump voters than Biden voters.

The Quinnipiac poll shows that without Kennedy, Biden and Trump are tied, in contrast to the three-way match-up showing Biden edging out Trump. That tracks with some other polling, Kennedy’s popularity on the right-wing media circuit, and his higher favorability among Republicans compared to Democrats.

A recent Politico analysis of campaign finance records found that Kennedy is receiving significantly more big-dollar donations from donors with histories of giving to Republicans than to Democrats.

That could be read as a sign that Kennedy is more widely liked by Republicans, although it’s also theoretically possible that some of those Republicans view boosting him as a weapon against Democrats — perhaps mistakenly. Overall it’s still safe to say Kennedy remains a wild card, an avatar of inchoate discontent in a political system plagued by mistrust.

Article originally posted here