This article is part of a special series covering the US elections this November, which will be featured on DEBAT. Quang explains the role of independent candidates and Kanye West’s unique campaign. DEBAT will publish an article on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Election Day.
Kanye West and the impact of third-party candidates
Independents and third-party candidates have a long history of running for president, but with little success. None have managed to reach America’s highest office, and most even fail to capture any Electoral College votes. So why do they matter?
Contemporary American politics have long been defined by a presidential race comparable to a coin flip; if you do not get heads, there is only one other option – tails. The country’s two-party system has cemented the fact that Presidents are either Democrats or Republicans, and nothing is expected to change in this coming election. Even if a Watergate-level scandal rocks both Biden and Trump’s campaign, we are still going to see either of these two as President.
This provides little opportunity for outsider candidates; those campaigning beyond these party lines to maneuver around the two-billion-dollar campaigns whose candidates consistently appear on headlines throughout Election Day. So far, the most successful independent campaign had been that of George Wallace in 1968, who ran on a far-right platform and gathered 45 electoral votes from five Deep South states. In 1992, Ross Perot also showed the best popular vote performance in modern history, garnering 19% of total votes but none from the Electoral College. Even when Theodore Roosevelt ran for a third, non-consecutive presidential term in 1912 under the Bull Moose Party banner, he only won 88 electoral votes.
Outsiders do not come even close to the 270 vote margin needed for the presidency, but their ability to influence which of the two mainstream candidates become President, however, can be substantial. Considering these candidates still receive up to millions of votes from the American electorate every leap year, they often capture votes through region-centric, issue-specific, or message-based strategies that would otherwise be impossible for the two mainstream candidates; who has to run on a nationwide, issue-wide campaign; to pursue. Many of these votes would otherwise go to one of these two candidates, so third-party campaigns can be especially influential in swing states – which usually decides the outcome of the election. In 2000, Ralph Nader earned 3% of the popular vote and was widely blamed for costing Al Gore the presidency after capturing almost 100,000 votes in Florida, where Bush won by just over 500 votes.
Such influence from third-party candidates make for interesting discussion around a topic less discussed this election season. The two outsider powerhouses continue to be the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, which together captured almost 5 million votes in 2016. However, dozens more also seek access to the presidential ballot, and there is often someone who stands out from the rest. This election, it is Kanye West.
Like American politics, rapper Kanye West has gone through a bizarre transformation over the last few years. The controversial but celebrated artist and fashion mogul; who went from interrupting award shows and performing for a dictator’s grandson to marrying a member of Hollywood’s leading socialite dynasty; has recently ventured into Christian revivalism. He now proclaims himself to be a “Christian Genius Billionaire” after earning most of his billion-dollar fortune from Yeezy; a highly successful fashion collaboration with Adidas; and now organizes weekly Sunday services with a choir that he also leads.
Constantly jumping from one venture to another, it should not surprise anyone that the Christian billionaire is now making an eccentric dive into politics. It has been a pretty lengthy road, though.
Having first announced his intention to run for President in late 2015, Kanye later implied on Twitter that he would instead run in 2024 following Trump’s victory in 2016, before further confirming this in an interview in 2018, where he says that his main political concern is healthcare. Kanye also met with Trump in the Oval Office in late 2018, where he donned the President’s signature red cap and affirmed his support for Trump. He also started becoming popular with conservatives and the alt-right after publicly supporting conservative pundit Candace Owens, and stated after that his campaign would be a mix of Trump and “maybe the Bernie Sanders principles.”
On July 4th, 2020, Kanye officially announced his intention to run for the 2020 presidential election. Official paperwork for the Federal Election Commission was filed for West a few days after. In a Forbes interview, the rapper said that he no longer supports Trump after what he sees as a “mess” in handling COVID-19 and believing that Trump had “hid in the bunker” throughout the pandemic. The announcement came as a shock to many observers and was soon ridiculed across social media.
Kanye entered the race late, and declared that he is not running, but instead “walking” towards God by becoming president, and will not make the ballot in important states such as Florida, Texas, and Michigan, but will be on the ballot in others like Colorado, Minnesota, and Iowa. America’s patchwork electoral system means that every state has its own rules, requirements, and deadlines for candidates to be able to get their names on the ballot. This is often seen as the most challenging barrier for many to enter the presidential race, however, the Federal Election Committee’s (FEC) database has registered over 1,200 official candidates, including Big Chungus, a self-proclaimed Princess of Hawaii, and Your Mom. The FEC provides a comprehensive database for these candidates here.
In most states, independent presidential candidates must collect a certain number of signatures, ranging from a few hundred to nearly 200,000, to qualify for the ballot – meaning that most voters will not even see the artist’s name when filling in their ballot. Some states, however, allow candidates to get on the ballot by simply paying a fee, which Kanye did in Oklahoma for $35,000. Other than that, Kanye’s name will only appear as a candidate for Vice President in Rocky De La Fuente’s campaign, a decision not made by either of the two, but rather by the American Independent Party, who runs the campaign and believe that Kanye’s name could attract support from millennials and Gen Z voters.
As such, West has called for people to vote for him as a write-in candidate, where some states give a designated box in the ballot that allows voters to fill in whatever name they please, including that of fictional characters. Rules on whether this candidate has to be registered depend on the state, but this is often seen as a form of protest vote, where voters can use this to express dissatisfaction at the options presented on the ballot.
Even supporters and those close to the rapper, his wife Kim Kardashian included, have struggled to explain the motivations and goals of Kanye’s perplexing campaign. He claims that his political party is called the Birthday Party, “because when we win, it’s everybody’s birthday.” His running mate is Michelle Tidball, a Wyoming preacher who describes herself as a “biblical life coach” who says she does not “watch news.” His campaign art included pictures of Vogue editor and known populist Anna Wintour, and of actress Kirsten Dunst, who still does not understand why she was featured in his promotional material.
Kanye’s entire platform is based on ten scriptures from the Bible, where West transcribed each verse into a policy point as if it would be the new Ten Commandments for the future of America. These range from bizarre promises such as bringing back prayers in schools in order to “restore faith and revive our constitutional commitment to freedom of religion,” to bare-bones policy points such as police reform and environmental protection.
He also claims to be pro-life, having voiced opposition on abortion but says he does not intend to restrict it and has asked Americans to refrain from sex outside of marriage. His only foreign policy stance to date has been to express support for Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in September. Outside of this, Kanye has said almost nothing about what he actually would do, and how he would achieve these vague points if elected.
Several political pundits have speculated that West’s presidential run is a publicity stunt to promote his upcoming music, but as the artist continues to indefinitely delay new musical content presumably to focus on his campaign, his recent actions have grown increasingly unpopular among fans.
All Falls Down
An inescapable element of Kanye’s campaign is his bipolar disorder, which he has openly spoken about in the past. In his only campaign appearance so far, Kanye donned a bulletproof vest in South Carolina and ranted against abolitionist Harriet Tubman before breaking down crying while talking about abortion, saying that his parents almost aborted him. “There would have been no Kanye West because my dad was too busy.”
Writing on Instagram, his wife called him a “brilliant but complicated person” who has to deal with “pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bipolar disorder” after West ranted about his marriage on social media. Kanye’s mental condition is becoming increasingly worrying, and his continued political confidence could potentially drive the artist further down this road.
Because a variety of allies and supporters of President Trump are working to advance and support West’s campaign, many Democrats view his candidacy as a dirty trick by Republicans to siphon young and Black votes away from Joe Biden, a notion West continues to reject. However, in a year where the President is working to undermine confidence in the election, Kanye’s campaign may prove to be one more point of uncertainty.
Republican activists in at least half a dozen states have been deeply involved in the effort to get Kanye West’s name on the ballot, which may further suspicion from Democrats. This first became clear in September, when Lane Ruhland, a lawyer who previously worked for the Trump campaign, delivered ballot signatures to Wisconsin election officials on behalf of West’s campaign. Others include Rachel George, a Republican consultant in Colorado; and Gregg Keller, former executive director of the American Conservative Union.
Despite this, West’s conservative positions may prove unattractive to most young voters, so one could argue that his impact on the elections has been overstated, and will likely be minuscule. However, his name is on the ballot in eleven states, where three – Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado; are swing states where the margin of victory between the two mainstream candidates can be as small as a few thousand votes. It’s unclear what role West can play in these battleground states, but if the rapper manages to pick up further momentum and garner just a few thousand votes, he might play a strangely decisive role in some states this election. It will likely be nowhere near as that of Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian Party candidate nor that of Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, as these two parties remain the most powerful political forces outside of the two major parties, but we will have to see what happens in November.
That is enough of Kanye for now. Coming back to the impact of third-party candidates, America is witnessing a leftward shift across its populace, where more Americans are expected to vote Democratic than ever as millions of Gen Zs become eligible to vote for the first time. African Americans and Latinos, two traditionally disenfranchised groups, are also expected to vote more than ever this year due to the ease of mail-in-voting being widely available, so it is very likely Joe Biden will capture the popular vote.
As such, Republicans have increasingly become supportive of third-party candidates, in hopes that campaigns such as that of Kanye’s could dilute support from Democrats to delay the certainty that more Americans will vote left, rather than right. It is an easier strategy than having to change their entire political platform, which has grown increasingly conservative and controversial under President Trump. In Montana, hundreds of people who signed petitions to put Green Party candidates on the ballot asked for their names to be removed after finding out that Republicans had secretly invested $100,000 in a signature-gathering effort for the Greens. Who knows where else they might be doing the same.
Some argue that the two mainstream parties have become so ideologically polarized that there is now space for centrist groups in America to prop up a potentially successful campaign, if not an entire party in the near future. Such a space would undoubtedly expand should each of the two parties continue moving further away from the center; which is happening right now, and faster than ever. This allows for candidates such as Kanye West to take the stage and may mean that future presidential races in the United States will start to look different from the dual-party elections we’ve gotten used to.
More information on Kanye West’s 2020 campaign can be found at its official website kanye2020.country