Kanye West’s presidential campaign is largely a sideshow, but in swing states like Wisconsin, it matters.
West has missed too many filing deadlines to appear on most state ballots come November. But, by successfully submitting in time in Wisconsin on Tuesday, the rap superstar could potentially impact the general election results in a state where Trump won by a narrow 23,000 votes in 2016.
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According to New York magazine, West will be on the ballot in nine states, leaving 19 others where the filing deadline has not elapsed. But those who are dreaming of the farce that would be a Kanye, Trump, and Biden presidential debate will be disappointed. The debate commission rules do not allow candidates to participate if they won’t be eligible to capture the needed 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
There are, however, two reasons to take West’s presidential campaign seriously: the very real impact his candidacy could have on what might be one of the most consequential presidential elections in US history and the entertainer’s personal mental health.
First, if the 2020 election is close, the rapper could potentially siphon away enough votes from either of the main contenders and tip the balance to make a difference in swing states and, ultimately, affect the overall outcome. Secondly, is the star’s health, which his wife Kim Kardashian West publicly addressed in late July following the candidate’s first presidential rally in South Carolina—an event that was, by most accounts, rather bizarre.
There have been plenty of indications that Republicans think a Kanye West candidacy is advantageous to Trump. According to the New York Times and several other reports, allies of the president are working to get West on the ballot in several states like Ohio, West Virginia, and Arkansas, and they helped secure his place on Colorado’s ballot this week.
To learn more about how West could be a potential spoiler, Rolling Stone spoke to political scientist and election forecaster Rachel Bitecofer, who correctly predicted the 2018 blue wave that saw Democrats wrestle away control of the House during the midterm elections, about a potential Kanye factor.
With West on the ballot in a state like Wisconsin, Bitecofer says, Biden’s chances could be damaged in the same way third-party candidates made a difference in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. And while Trump did win several swing states decisively, what some in the media are missing is the effect other candidates had—something she refers to as “third-party defection.”
“The importance of the third party is something I call third party defection,” Bitecofer said. “When you think about Donald Trump, they talk about this narrative that is spun out in the media about him winning [in 2016] over the Midwest, and you had all these states that slipped over to Trump. But really, that’s not mathematically actually what happened.”
Bitecofer then explained what she saw in the data: “It’s true that in Ohio and Iowa, when you look at those states, he did decisively win them. But in other states like Wisconsin, actually, what happened was that there was a significant amount of third party balloting. So votes that went to Gary Johnson, votes that went to the Green Party candidate, but also votes that went to write in, which is very uncommon. And we can’t just see those write-in votes. But my assumption was that a lot of them said Bernie Sanders.”
It’s also important, Bitecofer said, to consider that Donald Trump did not secure a solid majority of voters in 2016: “And so when we look at that third party defection, it’s way more than the loss margin, which was about 0.7 of a point between Donald Trump and Clinton. And when you look at Donald Trump in almost every swing state, he wins the state, but he’s a plurality winner. He doesn’t come close to cracking 50 percent.”
She continued, “And that’s because, between the two of them, their vote share totals like are 92 or 95. And then there’s a third party defection that’s, three to five times higher. Even, in some states, higher than what we’ve seen in other recent elections.”
So, Bitecofer warned that because of what happened in 2016 and with Trump not gaining in popularity, it’s more than likely that his campaign would be eager to have West on as many ballots as possible to again have third-party votes hand him a victory.
“When you are looking at the Trump reelection strategy, if you’re running the Donald Trump campaign and I’ve been saying this for about two years now, you’ve got a problem, right?” Bitecofer said. “I mean, you’ve got a guy who ran his initial run, could not crack 50 percent, didn’t win the popular vote, and hasn’t become more popular. And he isn’t going to be able to do it this time… So if you’re looking at how do you reelect this man, you realize, OK, third party voting really played a big role in 2016. And if I don’t work or if I don’t recreate that, then I’m in trouble.”
Bitecofer also addressed the naysayers on social media and said Kanye shouldn’t be taken lightly because he comes with a built-in vote-getting advantage: his celebrity status and name ID.
“I’m telling you, this could be a problem,” she said, “Kanye West has almost universal name ID, which is the best asset somebody could have. And he’s a celebrity. And we are a country that loves celebrities. Trump has taught us the value of that.”
How, exactly, might Republicans help Kanye make a difference, other than by getting him on the ballot? By microtargeting young people and Black voters with ads. “They will help advertise his campaign, and they will microtarget demographic groups of young people to get them to write in Kanye West,” Bitecofer said. “They’ll target Black voters. They’ll try to target Biden’s record on the crime bill and say, ‘You should vote for Kanye West.’ … What they’re trying to do here is, is siphon off voters to engage in a voter suppression effort so that they can continue to hold power and use that power to further damage [the Black] community. It makes it particularly insidious, in my opinion.”
As for the man himself, when West was asked in an interview with Forbes this week about only playing a spoiler role in November because he cannot garner the 270 electoral votes needed for a victory, the rap star said, “I’m not going to argue with you. Jesus is King.”
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