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Kanye West is running for president — seriously

West wants to play spoiler in the 2020 presidential election.

Kanye West hugs Jonathan Karl of ABC News after meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office on October 11, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Kanye West is running for president of the United States.

Is he for real? West has sent a few stray tweets suggesting a write-in campaign, and held one event. He’s not being included in many polls, and it would be a surprise if he made it onto the debate stage with President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the fall. Yet he’s getting on the ballot in a few states, where he could play conceivably spoiler if the general election is close.

The necessary administrative grunt work to being a viable independent candidate for president — namely, filing the forms to get one’s name placed on the November ballot — is largely getting outsourced to Republican political operatives.

All of this comes across, to the political world, as a wayward effort to potentially help Trump, the incumbent with whom West has forged a strange kind of alliance over the past few years.

As with much of West’s career, it is difficult to discern where the sincerity ends and the showmanship begins. West always zigged when others would zag. In his music, more often than not, he has been lauded for it.

“My sense is [West] is driven more by his ego and the publicity,” Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, told me. “But he acknowledges and recognizes whatever votes he gets, he will be pulling from Joe Biden’s black base. He is cognizant and aware of that. I just think he doesn’t care.”

West is not under any obligation to be loyal to the Democratic Party. Black Americans tend to vote at extremely high rates — often above 90 percent — for Democrats, but they are not monolithic. Many set aside socially conservative beliefs and support Democrats because of other issues. West is a capitalist who believes that material success demonstrates his merits, much like Trump (who himself was a Democrat until about a decade ago).

West’s presidential run may end up being little more than trivia. Unless the election is decided by the thinnest of margins, experts say he’s unlikely to win enough support to swing the results. Black Americans aren’t going to simply support a Black candidate because there’s one on the ballot. The 2020 polling we do have with West already makes that clear.

Nevertheless, the 2016 election was decided by 100,000 or so votes in three states. The stakes are too high for West to be dismissed as a joke. In one way, his campaign is already a serious success: Kanye West is once again forcing America, through sheer force of personality, to contend with him and his ideas.

How Kanye could actually affect the 2020 race

West has said for years, at least as early as 2015, that he would make a run for the presidency in 2020. But it was never clear how serious he was — not unlike Trump, who had flirted over the years with seeking political office, without ever being taken too seriously, before deciding to do it in 2016 and then actually winning the White House.

And in the past few years, West has drawn closer to Trump, often to the bewilderment of the political press and his musical peers. He went to see the president-elect in Trump Tower before the inauguration. He’s donned a MAGA hat. He visited the Oval Office to ostensibly talk about criminal justice reform. Every time it was a media sensation, but it never seemed to be more than Kanye being Kanye.

Then in July, he announced he was running for president for real — and started trying to get his name on states’ ballots.

He has already missed filing deadlines in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Michigan, among others. That is at least one reason to doubt his chances of winning 270 Electoral College votes on his own.

​”I initially thought, ‘here we go again, another publicity stunt for West,’” Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, a Georgia State University professor and author of Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics, said in an email. “I still think it is partially a publicity stunt. I do not think Kanye believes he can win.”

But he can still play spoiler in the important swing states. In the first week of August, West filed his paperwork to be on the ballot in Ohio and Wisconsin. The latter was decided by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, part of Trump’s inside straight in the Midwest that allowed him to triumph in the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote. Turnout among Black voters in Wisconsin was lower with Hillary Clinton on the ballot in 2016 than it had been with Barack Obama.

West knows this could throw a wrench in the election. Or, as he put it when asked by Forbes about damaging Biden’s electoral chances: “I’m not denying it.” (West also met with Trump son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner recently, although Kushner says it was a general policy discussion.)

Right now, the FiveThirtyEight 2020 presidential forecast thinks Wisconsin will be among the decisive states for the election’s winner. West being on the ballot could really matter. That is probably why Republicans affiliated with Trump’s campaign are helping him with his paperwork.

Lane Ruhland, a lawyer who has worked for the Trump campaign, dropped off the signatures for West to get on the Wisconsin ballot, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. Republican operatives and activists have been involved in some official capacity with getting West on the ballot in at least five states, according to the Washington Post. One of them, Gregg Keller, interviewed to be Trump’s campaign manager in 2016. In Montana, according to the Billings Gazette, one of the people collecting signatures to get West on the ballot could be heard calling out: “You want to help Trump? We’re trying to take votes away from creepy Uncle Joe.”

But those efforts haven’t gone entirely smoothly, which could complicate the Trump ploy and the viability of West’s campaign. Democrats have challenged West’s eligibility to appear on the Wisconsin ballot. According to the Journal-Sentinel, a local news reporter observed Ruhland entering the elections office seconds after the 5 pm deadline for signatures to be submitted.

West’s campaign has filed a petition with the state elections commission, arguing he did qualify for the November ballot based on a common understanding of what “5 pm” means. The matter will likely be the subject of legal proceedings in the coming weeks.

“I think we need to wait and see whether he actually makes the ballot in any crucial states before assessing his importance,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, told me. “Beyond that, I would not expect him to get many votes, although in a very close race, any number of factors — including third-party votes — could be crucial in the outcome.”

The available polling would seem to validate those modest expectations. Just 2 percent of registered voters said they supported West in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. Biden led Trump by 9 points in the same survey.

West’s support was very small even among the constituencies — Black voters and young voters — whom he or the Trump campaign might have expected the Kanye West candidacy to appeal to. Just 2 percent of Black voters and 6 percent of Gen Z voters backed him.

“The only question that matters — and that no one knows the answer to — is: Are there a significant number of voters in battleground states that were planning to vote for Joe Biden but will now vote for a recently Trump-supporting, 40-something rapper?” Dan Pfeiffer, a former aide to Barack Obama and co-host of Pod Save America, told me. “I am skeptical that the answer to that question is yes.”

If the strategy from the Trump campaign’s point of view was they could put a Black candidate on the ballot and he would draw Black voters away from Biden, it was based on a fundamentally prejudiced misunderstanding of Black voters, Jeffries said. According to the Daily Beast, some of Trump’s own aides worry the plan could backfire.

“They’re operating under the assumption Black folks will vote for any Black person, you just gotta put him in front of them,” he told me. “That is not taking Black folks seriously.”

Black voters are much more sophisticated in their political assessments, a savvy forged by their experience with racism in America and in American politics, than the simplistic Trump worldview is accounting for.

“African American voters are just as savvy as other voters and do not only rely on simple heuristics such as the race or cultural associations of a candidate to make decisions to support specific political candidates,” Bonnette-Bailey said. “Blacks do however, utilize race when making political decisions but the use of race is related to how political decisions that are made will impact the Black community as a whole.”

The maneuver is all the more puzzling because it was made following a Democratic presidential primary in which Biden overperformed with Black voters even with viable Black candidates in the race, including Biden’s newly announced running mate, Kamala Harris.

“What motivated Black voters to vote for Joe Biden over equally qualified Black candidates was, in my opinion, that Black voters didn’t trust white people to vote Trump out of office without having an old white dude as the other candidate,” Jeffries said. “They didn’t trust white folks not to do it again.”

“The fact that Kanye West has already aligned himself with Donald Trump publicly,” he continued, “that is enough to turn off most Black folks.”

Why Kanye and Trump ended up as allies

Much ink has been spilled trying to make sense of this alliance: the rapper who once said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” cozying up to the real estate mogul once sued by the federal government for discriminating against Black people and whose political project has been fueled by white resentment.

But the music scholars I spoke with each made the same point: Kanye West has always been an iconoclast.

“Maybe one document people are not engaging with as much when talking about Kanye and his public performance politics is his first album,” A.D. Carson, a University of Virginia music professor and hip-hop artist, told me.

The College Dropout, West’s breakout 2004 debut with five hit singles and 3 million records sold, is defined by its defiance of expectations: The backpack rapper from a middle-class Chicago background, whose mother was a college professor, mocks the idea that the best way to get ahead is to get educated.

“He’s kind of making fun of the very idea of what has been described as the way of being successful,” Carson said. “He seems to be really interested in going against expectation, going against being pigeonholed. ‘I’m supposed to be this way because I come from this place and I look this way.’”

In his music, West has consistently reinvented himself, with his critically lauded embraces of techno on 808s and Heartbreak and the industrial house music of Yeezus. In his public comments, he has embraced taboos, tweeting “Bill Cosby innocent” and implying slavery was a choice in a 2018 appearance with TMZ. Most recently, he said at his first presidential campaign event that Harriet Tubman didn’t actually free enslaved people.

For West, the only constant is his ability to dominate the public discourse if he so chooses. Sound familiar?

“It worked for Donald Trump. He’s literally the president right now. It’s not like Kanye is doing anything that Donald Trump didn’t do before him,” Carson told me. “In the way it’s worked out for Donald Trump to not have any consistency, I think for Kanye, there can be this inconsistency because consistency was never the point. The point has been the ability to exist somewhere in the area code of the zeitgeist. That’s sufficient.”

Another issue in West’s presidential campaign are the concerns about his mental health, something invoked very directly by his wife Kim Kardashian West in a recent social media post. She implied that her husband, who has said in recent years he stopped taking medication for his bipolar disorder, is going through an episode and asked for “compassion and empathy.”

That could be part, or most, or all of the explanation. But West could also support Trump and run a presidential campaign to assist him entirely because of his beliefs, paired with his penchant for courting controversy.

West’s politics would best be described as heterodox. He supports marijuana legalization, and he’s confronted American racism in his music. (“Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon” as he put it on “Gorgeous” from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.) He is also an avowed capitalist who opposes abortion.

“He has always wanted to follow God, make money, and liberate Black America; his vision of how that should work has just evolved somewhat,” Chris DeVille, senior news editor at Stereogum, told me. “We can debate in circles about whether his worldview is coherent, but it has been relatively consistent.”

It is another parallel with Trump. The former Democrat positioned himself in the 2016 Republican primary as the only candidate who didn’t want to cut entitlement programs and echoed Democratic talking points on how to bring down drug prices. At the same time, he was villainizing Mexican migrants and pledging to appoint anti-abortion judges to the bench.

“In terms of his political trajectory, with Kanye, it’s never been all that clear what his politics are,” Jack Hamilton, a University of Virginia media studies professor who has written on music and politics, told me. “There needs to be room for the possibility Kanye has maybe, as he’s gotten older, gotten more conservative.”

Kanye’s 2020 run underscores the complexities of Black American politics

White liberals can undeniably be prone to taking a patronizing attitude toward the political attitudes of Black Americans.

“Black conservatism is something that scrambles people’s brains in weird ways,” Hamilton said. “It does make me uncomfortable to see the way white people talk about Kanye’s right turn.”

That same kind of logic has been applied to the politics of hip-hop. The music gained a cultural foothold during the Reagan administration and quickly found itself in opposition to the prevailing conservative orthodoxy. Breakout hits like NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” placed rap artists in direct conflict with Republican politics. White critics with liberal views had their own part in playing up this narrative, devoting special attention and praise to “socially conscious” rap that affirmed their political priors.

But that narrative was always oversimplified. Much of, even most, rap wasn’t about politics at all and had no obligation to be. Some of the music that was more politically minded was imbued with the kind of “personal responsibility and respectability” politics that would not sound out of place in conservative talking points.

“Rappers would admonish people in the neighborhoods. We shouldn’t have romantic notions about what conscious rap meant,” Carson told me. “Many of the examples that were heralded had some fairly conservative messages.”

West came of age in the 1990s, when Trump symbolized success and skillful self-promotion. He was name-checked constantly across dozens of the hip-hop records West would have played to get a musical education. Many rappers saw the business mogul and thought to themselves, “Whatever Trump means to them, I want to mean to us,” Carson said.

As Jeffries reminded me, the hip-hop of the 1990s and 2000s was dominated by consumerism and entrepreneurial spirit: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” in the words of Jay-Z on West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” from 2005’s Late Registration. These days, West’s fortunes are invested as much in his fashion business as his music career.

But West’s willingness to embrace Trump after 2016, in spite of everything that made the president’s sympathy for white nationalism plain, still distinguishes him from most of his hip-hop peers and most Black Americans. Just 10 percent of Black voters said they approved of Trump’s job performance in the most recent Gallup poll.

“There was an ability to identify Trump’s racism that then in the hip-hop community created this shift away from him, despite the capitalist aspirations,” Jeffries said. “Kanye West never shifted.”

Why not? That is ultimately for West to say. But Jeffries cited two factors — wealth and celebrity — that distinguish West from Jeffries’s socially conservative grandmother who he says will still vote for Democrats.

“That makes him radically different than 99 percent of Black folks in America,” he said. “I think it is important to say Black people have a spectrum of beliefs, and Kanye West belongs on that spectrum. But where he is on that spectrum is not where most Black folks are.”

West’s candidacy may be best understood as an evolution of celebrity politics, following the ground tread by Trump, and not Black politics. But if his campaign is more ego balm than anything, it could come at a cost to the political activities of other Black Americans.

The months following George Floyd’s death have been a high point for the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys wider support in the US than ever before. Carson lamented that West’s presidential bid now risks overshadowing that work.

“The oxygen is being used up by Kanye,” he said. “Rap has its tentacles into things that don’t have to be about this carnivalesque show that’s ultimately servicing the egos of Donald Trump and Kanye West.”

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