Politics

So What Was the Point of Kanye West's Presidential Run?

Kanye West
Oliver Contreras - Pool/Getty Images

Rapper Kanye West speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval office of the White House on October 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.

We asked experts to break it down.

When Kanye West announced the launch of his long-shot presidential campaign under the "Birthday Party" banner on July 4, the effort seemed unlikely to shake up what was already a highly contentious, oxygen-sucking showdown between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

In addition to registering for the party incredibly late (with what appeared to be no ground team in any of the battleground states), making only one major campaign appearance to go with two 11th hour video ads, West's scrambling effort got him on the ballot in just 12 states. And despite his bluster and the advantage of a massive pop culture megaphone, West's independent bid failed to gain any traction, at a time when serious issues such as the raging COVID-19 pandemic and a historic economic collapse were gripping the nation.

Preliminary tallies from the Associated Press estimate West's vote totals at around 60,000 votes, which puts the rapper's outlay at around $150 per vote based on the reported $9 million of his own money 'Ye sunk into his failed bid. To be fair, it wasn't a successful year for third party or independent candidates in general, according to NBC News, which reported that such campaigns garnered around 1.5% of the presidential vote this year versus 5% in 2016.

With most of the votes counted and no winner declared in the tight contest between Biden and Trump at press time, Billboard got on the phone with our panel of political experts one last time to get their take on what West's run was all about, what it could mean for future celebrity White House bids and why his campaign failed to catch fire.

"Third party candidates did less well than in 2016 in terms of playing a spoiler role this year because people didn't want to waste their vote -- they wanted to vote for Trump or Biden, because this election was deemed very important," Robert Y. Shapiro, Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government and Professor of International and Public Affairs in the Columbia University Department of Political Science, tells Billboard about why so few got behind 'Ye.

In terms of whether West's anemic showing could be a bellwether for future celebrity White House bids, Shapiro says for them to make any sense there has to be an "open space and opportunity" for the candidate to run with a purpose. Whether that's an urgent pet cause that they can shed a unique light, on or displaying a genuine interest in the body politic, just having the resources to make noise and get your name on a handful of ballots isn't enough of a reason. Or at least it wasn't this time around.

Citing such celebs-turned-politicians as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shapiro says one of the key factors working against West was the sheer incompetence of his effort. "For $6 million you could spend your money in better ways to get on the ballot and look less ridiculous," he says, noting that this year was not the best one to test the hypothesis that other celebs -- such as Oprah Winfrey or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson -- might have an opportunity to make a Trump-like bid that could make more than social media noise. Plunging into a presidential race is a massive undertaking, and despite his significant war chest, Shapiro says West might have been better served running for mayor or a smaller office to start with instead of shooting so high.

In the end, though, West's impact may have been exactly what he -- and some have argued Trump -- were after all along: promoting their brand. West's stated policy provisions, which included returning prayer to schools, criminal justice reform and a mirror of friend Trump's America First foreign policy, were not a revelation. But, of course, he did offer a variety of "Vote Kanye"-branded merch on his site and managed to draw global headlines at a time when he was not touring or releasing new music, a definitive win for the Kanye pop culture brand.

Don't count him out just yet, though, as West conceded defeat on Tuesday night while hinting at a reboot next presidential election season with the tweet, "Welp. Kanye 2024." That gives him plenty of time to build a more coherent, organized campaign next time, something Mike Muse, political pundit and host of The Mike Muse Show on SiriusXM and co-host of satellite radio's Sway in the Morning says is not as far-fetched as you might think.

"Kanye always had an idea of how to shape policy, and there was a period eight years ago when he had a plan for American education and things to make American's lives better," says Muse of West's wide-ranging 2012 Twitter spree in which he first shared his ideas about reshaping American education. And after seeing that a reality star/real estate mogul with no political experience could take the White House, Muse suspects West figured he had just as good a chance to play spoiler in 2020; a spokesperson for West declined to comment for this story, referring to his "Welp" tweet as the last official word on his 2020 run.

And while 60,000 doesn't sound like a lot of votes when you look at the historical number of ballots Americans filled out this year, Muse says it does point to how it should serve notice to both parties that disenfranchised voters feel the current political structure does not speak to them and that something has to change. "Those 60,000 people are part of an awakening that the status quo can't continue -- [that] the way we select candidates, the policies they have, the style of campaigning is something we need to talk about."

Muse thinks we may never know if West really thought he could make a difference and break into the top tier of candidates, but his high sense of self-awareness, his ability to draw big crowds and generate global headlines, and his belief that he has the capacity to be the leader of the free world is a good start. "The real question is: are the other candidates' egos any different than Kanye's?" he asks, noting that everyone who makes a White House needs to believe that they are the smartest person in the room and capable of leading the country and the world.

"He [West] really believed he had something to say... but unfortunately when you're facing someone who is promoting white supremacy it's just the worst time to do that," says Muse, referring to President Trump's repeated embrace of fringe conspiracy theories such as QAnon and repeated stumbling when asked to fully denounce white supremacy.

"So maybe that was $6 million well spent on a campaign that was more about self-promotion," offers Shapiro about what West gained in the end. "And like Trump advertising the Trump brand further, it did the same for him."

Both men said this is likely not the end of our celebrity presidential era, but just the beginning -- should the right candidate find a winning message backed by one of the major parties, with solid, thoughtful policy provisions and a willingness to answer tough questions in public. "Rather than coming in at the last minute and thinking Instagram and Twitter followers are enough to put you over the top -- release your taxes, be willing to take a physical exam and show how you make money, and go through what every other non-celebrity candidate goes through," recommends Muse. "And maybe people will give you a shot, not just because you're famous."

What both commentators also agree on is that as an open society, we shouldn't discourage these exercises of free speech, regardless of how they fail, succeed or confound. "It could be a healthy sign when protest candidates emerge to send a message about the current state of American politics," Shapiro says. "To the extent that they draw attention to problems [in politics] or a particular cause."

Kanye West Accepts Election Defeat in Social Media Post | Billboard News