Kanye West won’t be president, but is his candidacy the future of American elections?
The hip-hop superstar has demonstrated that celebrities have increasing power as political candidates.
Most voters who have submitted ballots in the 2020 presidential election, or who plan to do so in the coming days, are deciding between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. But in many states, a third-party candidate can challenge the two contenders in name recognition, if not electoral likelihood.
Kanye West — the 43-year-old hip-hop superstar, fashion mogul and tabloid fixture —appears on ballots in 11 states, including Utah, as an independent candidate, but he presents himself as belonging to the self-created “Birthday Party.” (“When we win, it’s everybody’s birthday,” West told Forbes.) His platform centers largely on a recent religious awakening and a generalized optimism. “Our future is free from debt, shame, guilt, worry, stress, war, greed, hate, misuse of power, prejudices, manipulation and discrimination,” his campaign site reads.
The campaign, which officially launched in July, has carried on West’s history of eccentricity. After one early rally, he faced harsh criticism for claiming that abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves.”
The latest polling numbers suggest West’s effect on the 2020 race will be minimal. At present standing, he lacks even the support to tip the balance between Trump and Biden in Minnesota and Colorado, two swing states where he appears on the ballot.
But experts caution against treating West’s candidacy as a joke, regardless of how little it shifts this year’s presidential race. He is best understood, they argue, not as a distraction or an outlier but as part of a building trend of celebrities engaging with presidential politics — a trend that will continue to reshape the nature of elections in years to come.
Kanye in context
Those looking to dismiss West’s candidacy as an empty publicity stunt have ample ammunition. He is polling near 2% nationally, according to a recent Reuters poll, putting him roughly in line with Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen and a far cry from affecting either major nominee. His campaign approach has been erratic, light on traditional measures of voter engagement, such as events and television ads, and heavily funded by his own personal wealth. Earlier this month, West erroneously claimed that polls showed him challenging Trump and Biden in Kentucky; the source he cited featured test results — not actual data — from a news station’s cached link.
“He’s treated as kind of a joke candidate,” Seth Masket, a University of Denver political science professor who has written about celebrities in politics, said. “I don’t think his policy views are being taken terribly seriously — partially because of his campaigning style. I think a lot of people are honestly concerned about his mental health.” Over the summer, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, asked for compassion for West’s struggles with bipolar disorder.
Still, there remains some degree of political calculus behind the campaign — even if a portion of it hasn’t come from West himself. Over the summer, NPR reported on the the efforts of people affiliated with the Republican party to get West a place on ballots. In Vermont, Wisconsin, Ohio and Colorado, individuals with connections to the GOP — delegates, legal counsel, strategists — signed on as electors, dropped off signatures and filed paperwork for West’s campaign.
Lauren Wright, a politics lecturer at Princeton University and author of the book “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate,” sees the pattern — characterized by some observers as an attempt on the part of the GOP to siphon votes from Biden — as a meaningful update of an old tactic. “We’ve seen this at the senate level and the congressional level,” Wright said. “Parties have always approached celebrities — particularly athletes and entertainers — and encouraged them to run.”
West’s political power does not derive wholly, or even mostly, from the influence of other strategists, however. Rather, Wright said, they merely see opportunity in something he — along with other celebrities — inherently has: a combination of name recognition and wealth unsullied by a traditional political history. It is this combination that has already started to upend presidential politics, and that could do so to an even greater extent in coming elections.
The power of popularity
Trump’s ascent during the 2016 race heralded a new era for celebrity politicians, given his lack of any political or military experience prior to winning the presidency. But although West’s campaign has fallen far short of Trump’s, Wright argued it nonetheless adds to the growing evidence that celebrities can act as major political players. The shoddiness of the campaign, in fact, only reinforces the power that celebrity affords.
“I think that it is important to note just how extraordinary it is that he’s on any ballot at all, in the news, a topic of conversation, that people are worried about him siphoning votes,” Wright said. “It shows how something like like a built-in following and name recognition can get you.”
Celebrities making forays into politics also benefit from a less contentious relationship with the public. Where candidates build up backlogs of popular and unpopular policies, of rousing speeches and embarrassing gaffes, entertainers tend to resonate more positively and personally.
“I’ve been a fan of Kanye West since I was seven,” Matthew Milk, a 24-year-old Stockton, California, resident who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and recently cast a ballot for West, said. “He was the first guy that was like, ‘I’m kind of tough, but I’m kind of a poet’ ... I really identified with Kanye.” Milk remembers West’s contention, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that President George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. “I was thinking, ‘A lot of these people in power don’t really care about us.’ That was a big turning point in how I view politics.”
Ray Ahmed, a 27-year-old who lives in Austin, Texas, and describes himself as falling on the center-right portion of the political spectrum, sees West’s artistic accomplishments as evidence of leadership ability. “He’s a big proponent of putting people who are the best at what they do in positions of making decisions,” Ahmed said. “He does that a lot with his music, so I’m really really banking on that it would transfer over to his political philosophy.”
West is not without his own history of scandal, political and otherwise. Among many viral moments in his catalog is his interruption, in 2009, of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at MTV’s Video Music Awards. He has proclaimed the innocence of Bill Cosby, currently serving a prison sentence for sexual assault. He has come under fire from many longtime fans for wearing a Make America Great Again hat during the early years of Trump’s presidency.
Entertainers, though, tend not to be held to the same standards as career politicians — even when they themselves turn to politics. “The standards of conduct are just different for celebrities, from baseline, than they are for politicians,” Wright said. “They’re given more leeway to make mistakes and say outlandish things because they can very effectively hide behind this ‘I’m not a politician’ excuse.”
If the current president’s 2016 campaign proved the efficacy of this technique, West’s less successful campaign suggests something of its staying power. He will not be president, but the circumstances that led to his appearing on ballots are not going away. “A lot of celebrities, we come to know them just in terms of movies and music that we love. And that’s an advantage,” Wright said. “They come with a toolkit that politicians take years to hone, and they can make it pretty far. I would say not underestimating them is a major lesson we have to take away.”