Opinion | Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Is Worse Than a Spoiler

Lately, you’ve probably been asking yourself: What does it mean that Nicole Shanahan has been chosen as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s running mate?

OK, maybe not.

I know, you’ve got a full and busy life. Still, the Shanahan thing is sorta serious. Let’s discuss.

R.F.K. Jr. is, as we all know, running for president as an independent — an effort that will further publicize his anti-vaccination views and perhaps provide a point to his life.

Shanahan, a lawyer who has never won elective office, is notable for being really, really rich. She’s a billionaire, thanks to her five-year marriage to Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google. Many of us first heard of her when she put $4 million toward financing a Super Bowl ad for Kennedy that superimposed his face on some clips promoting his assassinated uncle. Which drove his siblings further into the arms of President Biden, the recent host of a White House St. Patrick’s Day party that included a mega-Kennedy guest list.

“Nearly every single grandchild of Joe and Rose Kennedy supports Joe Biden,” R.F.K. Jr.’s younger sister Kerry said in a speech a few weeks after the gathering.

In many presidential contests, a third-party candidate like Kennedy wouldn’t make a difference. Every four years, people you’ve never heard of manage to get themselves on the presidential ballot in one state or another. Never works — the last time we had a president who wasn’t affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican Party was Millard Fillmore, who was the vice-presidential nominee of the Whig Party and got to be president in 1850 when Zachary Taylor died from supposedly eating too many cherries and drinking too much milk at a Fourth of July celebration.

Do appreciate the singular moment every four years when we can find a way to discuss that killer cherries story.

Anyhow, one thing you do not have to worry about is watching a second President Kennedy being sworn in next year. It’s gonna be Joe Biden or Donald Trump.

I know, I know. Stop moaning. That’s the big problem here. How many people will vote for R.F.K. Jr. as a protest against the real choices?

This is the Third Party Thwack. The candidates can’t win, but they can screw things up for one of the real contenders. Most famous, of course, was Ralph Nader’s bid in 2000, which helped give us George W. Bush for president instead of Al Gore. In 2016, Hillary Clinton might have won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — and her race against Trump — if the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, hadn’t been on the ballot, draining away some of the people who wanted to vote for a woman.

Kennedy backers say they’ve already ticked off enough boxes to qualify for the ballot in several states, including deeply significant Michigan. He might even elbow his way into the presidential debate next month. Sooner or later, there’ll be a host of physical fitness stories that juxtapose pictures of Trump on the golf course, Biden at the beach and the well-muscled R.F.K. Jr. doing push-ups. If voters decide they want a president who can welcome foreign dignitaries at the White House naked from the waist up, he’s definitely your guy.

Shanahan is not somebody you’d normally imagine as a vice-presidential pick. She wed a tech investor who filed to annul the union after 27 days. She’s denied reports that her marriage with Brin broke up after she had a fling with Elon Musk. Somebody’s going to work all that into a debate question.

The problem here is that Shanahan can use her fortune to underwrite a big presidential drive by Kennedy. Who already has a super-famous name, a good record for environmental work and a son who once dated Taylor Swift.

On the other hand, of course, he’s never held office or run a major organization, and he’s done little, if anything, to prove political prowess; his fans put his name in for nomination at the Libertarian Party convention on Sunday, and he won about 2 percent of the vote. Some of his positions — notably on abortion rights — are cloudy at best.

In recent national polls, Kennedy’s gotten around 16 percent of voter support, but there’s good reason to believe a very big chunk of that came from folks who just wanted to protest the Biden and Trump options. People, this is a bad, bad idea. Voting for an independent candidate in a presidential contest does not make you principled. It makes you a citizen who cares more about looking cool and above it all than about taking part in the real democratic process.

The two-party system helps bring the country together, and it’s going to be particularly important this year. Voters need to believe the winner actually won, and that’s tough enough when one of the candidates does not recognize any election as accurate unless he comes out on top.

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