Your Paranoid Questions

All Your Most Paranoid Questions About Kanye’s Presidential Run, Answered

What in Ye’s name is he doing?

Photo: Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images News

Since Kanye West announced his presidential bid on Twitter last month, questions have been raised about the rapper’s actions and intentions. He held a bizarre rally in South Carolina in mid-July where he criticized Harriet Tubman and then went on to try to file for the ballot in a seemingly random collection of states. This third-party campaign by West, who was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump — he famously held court in the Oval Office in 2018 while wearing a Make America Great Again hat — has drawn attention for its ties to a number of Republican operatives and activists, along with concerns stemming from his history of mental illness. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, posted on Instagram about the rapper suffering a bipolar episode in late July, pleading for understanding and noting that “those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.”

So what exactly is going on with Kanye West’s presidential campaign? Let’s start at the beginning.

Can Kanye West be president?

Sure, he’s over 35 and is a natural-born citizen of the United States. There are no other qualifications to hold office.

But can he get elected?

Let’s put it this way: There are scenarios in which Kanye West can become the next president of the United States. There are also scenarios in which Bernie Madoff or the Unabomber can become the next president—and they are only slightly more outlandish.

West currently will not appear on the ballot in states that deliver a combined total of 338 of the 538 electoral votes. You need 270 electoral votes to be elected president via the Electoral College. Thus, he cannot win the Electoral College.

Then what’s this far-fetched scenario where he could become president?

If no candidate gets 270 electoral votes, the 12th Amendment provides for the contingent election of the president via the House of Representatives. However, only the top three electoral vote–getters can be candidates. To still be in the game in this scenario,West would either have had to outright win a state or, at the very least, receive support from at least one faithless elector.

The House of Representatives would then vote by state delegation — and West would have to emerge as a compromise choice between supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump after what looks to be a historically chaotic election, uniting politicians of both parties to win a majority of state delegations in Congress.

In other words, it is not going to happen.

So, what is he doing?

That is a very good question. The short answer is who knows? The longer answer clearly involves a coordinated effort by Republican operatives to get the rapper on the ballot, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio, in the hopes that he takes African American votes away from Joe Biden and tips those states’ decisive cache of Electoral College votes into Trump’s column.

West’s campaign also has less orthodox elements. He has gotten on the ballot in noncompetitive states like Arkansas and Vermont, and nothing about his now-infamous campaign rally in South Carolina could be said to be part of a coordinated plot. There, West alternated between tears and criticism of Harriet Tubman as a part of his unsuccessful effort to gather enough signatures to make the ballot in South Carolina. As mentioned before, West has a history of mental illness, and his wife talked about him suffering a bipolar episode only weeks ago.

The most curious part of his campaign for the White House is the involvement of Republican operatives throughout his campaign. In Arkansas, Gregg Keller, a longtime Republican operative, was listed as the West campaign’s point of contact. In Wisconsin, West’s petitions to get on the ballot were dropped off at the board of elections by Lane Ruhland, a lawyer who is also currently representing the Donald Trump campaign in court. And, of course, there is West’s relationship with Jared Kushner. As first reported by the New York Times, the two met in Colorado in early August. Kushner said they only talked about policy and not the campaign. West has told Forbes, “I love Jared… that’s my boy,” and said they talk “almost daily.” West also registered to vote as a Republican only days after announcing his third-party bid.

Would this be legal?

Probably. Running sham candidates is perfectly legal—and it’s still common in places like Chicago. Kanye West could be explicitly running as a spoiler solely to hurt Joe Biden, and it would be legal, says Rick Hasen, a law professor at University of California, Irvine. “Why someone runs for office is between them and their conscience. We couldn’t have a system where the test [for someone being a candidate] is their motive,” he explained.

The question is whether any prohibited coordination is taking place. Hasen noted that “coordination is a very slippery concept” to prove in campaign finance cases. If Kushner was coordinating with West at all or encouraging West to do anything with his campaign, that would raise real legal issues. But, as Hasen points out, proving a violation requires willful action, and, as he puts it, “Kanye is a novice.”

So, does West’s campaign matter?

Yes, it does. As of now, West is officially on the ballot in four states where nearly 5.7 million votes were cast in the 2016 election: Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Vermont. His status is pending in eight other states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (although West is likely to be thrown off the ballot in Illinois) — and there are still a dozen others where he could try to qualify. Kanye West is a celebrity with a huge platform and the ability to draw publicity for any action. And unlike most third-party candidates, he has near-universal name ID. A new poll for Politico/Morning Consult showed that 97% of respondents had heard of him.

Wisconsin, which is one of the states where West has filed for the ballot and not yet qualified, was decided by a margin of less than 1% in 2016. In a close election, every vote counts — and West is certainly capable of getting 1% or even 2% of the vote. The Politico/Morning Consult poll had him receiving 2% of the vote nationally, although national polling tends to overstate support for third-party candidates.

The question, of course, is who West gets those votes from. While the Republican thesis is that he will draw votes from African Americans who might otherwise vote for Biden, it’s not at all clear that’s what will happen. West is slightly more popular with African Americans than with white voters, but he is still distinctly unpopular overall. Only 21% of African Americans have a favorable opinion of him, while a mere 16% of white voters do, according to the Politico/Morning Consult poll. Instead, West is strongest among Trump supporters. Among those who have a positive opinion of Trump, 29% have a favorable view of the rapper, while 49% do not. But among those who have a negative opinion of the incumbent, only 9% have a favorable opinion of West — and a whopping 81% do not.

As a result, it’s entirely possible that West draws more voters away from Trump than he does from Biden. Still, with the incumbent lagging in the polls, it’s a gamble worth taking for the Republicans involved. As for West, it doesn’t seem that these long odds are likely to deter the man who released the song “I Am a God.”

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

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