vision 2020

What the Hell Is Kanye West’s Campaign About?

Photo: Edward Berthelot/GC Images

There is no word in the English language to adequately describe Kanye West’s presidential campaign.

The campaign is not serious, but it’s not a joke, either. It has aspects of both a vanity project and a Republican ratfucking operation, but not fully either. Instead, it is an entirely original creation, previously unknown to science.

As of this writing, Kanye West has successfully filed to be on the ballot in nine states, where he could win a total of 88 electoral votes. (He also filed in a tenth state, New Jersey, but removed himself from the ballot ahead of a hearing on whether the signatures submitted were forged.) There are 19 states where he can still file, with a total of 190 electoral votes at stake. Two hundred seventy electoral votes are needed to win the presidency and, even more important, the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates block candidates from appearing onstage who are not eligible to win at least 270 votes. Even without being likely to meet that threshold, his campaign is plugging ahead and pushing to get on the ballot in Montana ahead of the state’s August 12 deadline to file.

The candidate’s public participation in his own presidential campaign has consisted of one bizarre campaign rally, two interviews with Forbes, and some tweets. Other than that, West has simply signed paperwork and paid for professional signature gatherers to petition him onto the ballot. In fact, TMZ reports that West is currently in a “remote Caribbean location” where politics is “off limits” between him and his wife, Kim Kardashian West. West described himself Thursday to Forbes as “walking” for office rather than running for office.

Much of the campaign seems to be linked to a variety of Republican operatives and activists, intent on putting West on the ballot with the belief that he will take African American votes away from Joe Biden.

The most prominent of them is Gregg Keller, the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and a well-known conservative operative based in Missouri. As first reported by Intelligencer, Keller signed on to be the campaign point of contact when West filed to appear on the ballot in Arkansas. Keller, who was under consideration to be Donald Trump’s campaign manager in 2015, has also been linked to the West campaign’s effort to get on the ballot in Ohio. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Others include Lane Ruhland, who was the West campaign’s representative when the rapper filed to appear on the ballot in Wisconsin. Only one week before filing West’s petition, she signed a legal filing in federal court as a lawyer for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The Trump campaign told Intelligencer in a statement about Ruhland, whose identity was first reported by Vice, “There’s no conflict to waive but we have no knowledge of anything Kanye West is doing or who is doing it for him.”

In Colorado, Vice reported that another Republican operative, Rachel George, was helping West recruit electors as part of his effort to get on the ballot. George is the former communications director for Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who is considered the most vulnerable GOP senator on the ballot in 2020. Her husband, Andy George, is also a Republican strategist in the state, and his firm, Clear Creek Strategies, was paid over $92,000 by the Republican National Committee earlier this year.

Many of Kanye West’s electors — those who would cast electoral votes on his behalf if he wins their state — are also active Republicans.

In Vermont, one West elector, Chuck Wilton, was also elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. His wife, who is also an RNC delegate, has a Trump administration job, and the two are considered close political allies of Darcie Johnson, who ran Vermont for Trump in 2016 and then came to Washington to join his administration. West’s electoral slates in states like Colorado and Wisconsin are also jam-packed with Republican activists.

But not all of West’s electors are card-carrying Republican operatives.

One of them, Catherine McGervey of Cleveland, Ohio, told Intelligencer that she was attracted to West by “his new Christian values” and noted his “kids were baptized in rite of the Catholic Church.” She expressed the hope that she would be friends with West.

McGervey had few specifics about how she was connected to be an elector but thought it was part of “God’s plan.” The mother of ten, she said, “I heard this man needed people to sign, I said, ‘Come on over, we all feel the same way.’” The result is that eight of West’s 18 electors in Ohio have addresses on the same block in Cleveland; six of those, including McGervey, have the same address.

McGervey, who is ardently pro-life, said she’d never been involved in politics before. She has ambivalent feelings about the incumbent president. She said, “I do love Donald Trump, but I’m not sure if I trust him right now.” She added, “I don’t like Joe Biden.” In her view, “I think we need somebody more focused on God. Trump took us a long way — I think Kanye can go farther.”

The campaign is certainly more organized than it was when it launched in July, via a tweet from West. The rapper, who had spent July interspersing tweets about his campaign with tweets about a new album, explored an effort to get on the ballot in Florida before backing away at the last minute. He then eventually filed as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission, sent in the $35,000 check required in Oklahoma to appear on the ballot and launched a last-minute effort to qualify as a candidate in South Carolina that included his bizarre campaign rally where he attacked Harriet Tubman. (It failed.) At the same time, there was mounting speculation that West was having a bipolar episode, which was eventually acknowledged by his wife, Kim Kardashian West, on Instagram, after the presidential hopeful wrote and deleted a series of tweets, including the claim that she was trying to lock him up.

The question is, what impact he will have on the election? In that context, it might not matter whether West is knowingly playing the spoiler, a man with a mental disorder being used as a patsy, or something else entirely — he’s now on the ballot, and millions of voters will have Kanye Omari West as an option in November.

Needless to say, strategists in both parties have been as befuddled as everyone else by all of this. Prominent Republican pollster Frank Luntz argued that the rapper won’t have much of an impact on the race and there is no demand for his candidacy. “Kanye has always wanted to make a statement, but I just don’t think his running will make a difference,” said Luntz. Of those who did vote for the rapper, he thought that West’s core constituency would be “young African American men,” and that even though West has a “relationship with Trump, I don’t think he’d pull a single Trump voter. He would pull a few Biden voters.”

Tom Bonior, the CEO of Targetsmart, a top Democratic data firm, took a different view. “The best guess I can come up with is his best demographic will be the small subset of young, nihilistic, mostly white voters, who probably voted for Trump the last time around anyhow,” Bonior told Intelligencer.

There is polling data on West from May 2018, when he famously met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. Then, only 23 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him, and 53 percent had an unfavorable opinion. However, among Republicans, West broke even: 35 percent had a favorable opinion of him and 35 percent did not. By contrast, he was deeply unpopular with Democrats, 12 percent of whom had favorable opinion and 67 who did not. And it is unlikely that the events of recent days have improved his standing with Democrats.

Whatever the impact that West has in November, for now, his campaign will continue. The candidate may be in tropical seclusion right now, but there are still plenty of states where his campaign can still push ahead without him. It’s an eccentric approach for any candidate, let alone one who famously promoted a new album by projecting a music video on nearly 70 buildings across the world. But maybe this is just what walking for the presidency looks like.

What the Hell Is Kanye West’s Campaign About?