This Is How Many Kennedy Family Members Have Run For President

Rejecting hereditary monarchy and aristocracy might have been a fundamental tenant of America's founding, but that hasn't stopped talk of dynasties from cropping up throughout its history. At the local, state, and federal level, certain families have played an outsized role in politics and governance. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution once tried to make sense of such dynastic impulses, chalking them up to children entering their parents' profession, brand name recognition among voters, and an assumption that such families have enough wealth to resist theft or corruption. Characters like Alex Murdaugh should disabuse anyone of the notion that such disinterest is automatically true, but against that example stand the likes of John and John Quincy Adams and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, who served their states and countries in multiple offices before reaching the presidency.

Of course, no discussion of American political dynasties could leave out the Kennedys. The children and descendants of Joseph Kennedy Sr. have held everything from seats in the Rhode Island House of Representatives to the White House, and the tragic and premature end of the John F. Kennedy administration at a transformative moment in modern American history has left the family with a romantic tinge that endures, for some, to this day. For others, the luster of the Kennedy name has worn off in recent years. John remains the only one of the clan to win the presidency — but that hasn't stopped three other Kennedys from trying, netting the family four runs in all.

John F. Kennedy

It was the great hope of Joseph Kennedy Sr. that his oldest son, Joseph Patrick Jr., would one day become president (per the UVA Miller Center). But when the junior Kennedy died while serving in World War II, that ambition was transferred to the next in line, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Known in the family as Jack and to posterity as JFK, John was a sickly child who would spend all his life fighting various ailments. A 2019 PBS report detailed issues ranging from medication-induced osteoporosis to Addison's disease, though most of his health woes were kept hidden from the voting public. Kennedy shared his father's ambition for high office and felt called to public service, whether that was through heroic naval escapades in World War II or running for office. He entered the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1952.

Kennedy's poor health limited his achievements and even his attendance in the Senate, but his family name, his war record, and his book "Profiles in Courage" all helped to enhance his reputation. After a failed bid to become the vice presidential candidate in 1956, he was well-positioned to be the Democratic nominee in 1960. The now-famous campaign, putting the politically astute, relatively young, Catholic, and photogenic Kennedy against Richard Nixon, came to a close finish. The popular vote came down to less than 120,000 ballots, but Kennedy managed a reasonably comfortable victory in the electoral college — 303 to 219.

Robert F. Kennedy

A significant piece of the Kennedy family's reputation is unfulfilled hopes. John F. Kennedy was president for less than three years before he was assassinated, leaving many of his ambitious promises unfulfilled. His younger brother Robert's bid for the presidency in 1968 was seen as an attempt to revive those promises, and many historians and politicians have argued that a Robert F. Kennedy administration would have led the nation through the 1970s into a better place. But another bullet brought down the Kennedy dream once again.

Robert Kennedy did not initially plan on running for president. He hated Lyndon B. Johnson and held his administration in contempt. But besides the fact that it was nearly impossible to dislodge a sitting president from the Democratic Party ticket, Kennedy had been left devastated by his brother's death. They were close personally and professionally — much of Robert's career had been in service to John. He left the Johnson administration after a brief tenure to run for his brother's old Senate seat. But after recovering from the initial thrust of grief — and after judging Johnson vulnerable after a surprising performance by Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary — Kennedy put his hat in the ring.

Whether he ever would have won the nomination can't be known. Kennedy started late in the campaign season, and while Johnson had pledged not to run again, McCarthy put up a strong fight. His campaign trail death on June 5, 1968 ended the contest.

Ted Kennedy

Members of the Kennedy clan who've entered politics have sometimes been accused of entitlement or opportunism. Robert F. Kennedy's decision to run for president was seen by some as taking advantage of a perceived weakness in incumbent president Lyndon B Johnson's chances. As reported by PBS, one critic complained that "Kennedy thinks that American youth belongs to him at the bequest of his brother." Similar charges were thrown at Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy when he ran to dislodge Jimmy Carter as the Democratic nominee for 1980.

Like his older brothers, Ted Kennedy served as a senator from Massachusetts. Like Robert, he disliked the sitting president of his time, feeling that Carter's administration was hurting the Democratic Party and the country. But Kennedy, who was initially looked down on by his brothers' advisors and had the stain of Chappaquiddick to his name, was coming into his own as a legislator and as a man by 1980. He resisted copying iconographic images associated with his brothers in order to establish his own identity. And after Carter's infamous "malaise" speech, Kennedy decided to challenge him for the presidency.

Initial polling was well in his favor. But Carter proved a much tougher campaigner than Kennedy expected once the primaries were underway, and Kennedy dug a critical hole for himself when he failed to articulate any reason for wanting to be president. He lost to Carter, who then lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

That someone from the third generation of Kennedys might step up and run for president has been floated more than once over the years. John F. Kennedy Jr.'s friend and biographer Steven M. Gillon has suggested that John Jr. had a long-term aspiration to reclaim the White House for his family (via People). But it was John Jr.'s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who became the latest Kennedy to try and take the presidency when he filed to challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

Though he, like his famous forbearers, identifies as a Democrat, Robert Jr. is in many ways the black sheep of the Kennedy family. As of August 2023, there's no expectation that the extended clan intends to support his bid, and many of his relatives oppose it. This is due in part to his straying into conspiracy theory territory regarding certain issues. In 2019, his sister, brother, and nephew took to Politico to denounce his anti-vaccine statements. His campaign has been criticized for conspiratorial thinking and, to the extent that polls show him to have a national support base early in the race, it lies more with Republican voters than Democrats. For his part, Kennedy has argued — against his own statements, per ABC News — that he isn't anti-vax and that he has been unfairly censored, a key theme of his platform.