“I was convinced that person was Kanye West,” Woodbury said.
His colleagues cackled then. Now they’re taking a closer look at the very real impact West could have on the 2020 presidential election.
But like so many citizens of Presidential Election Town — journalists, commentators, strategists, data analysts, etc. — when it comes to West, Woodbury is of two distinct minds.
“I do not want to take Kanye West seriously,” said Woodbury, a partner at HIT Strategies, a political research firm focused on women, minorities and millennials. “But I know that we have to.”
And that’s the core of the conundrum called Kanye in 2020.
He’s a Grammy-winning musical genius. He’s a MAGA hat-wearing booster for President Trump. Wait, no — he took the hat off. But he still thinks Trump is pretty great. West’s music — sounding like an exposed nerve at times and a blood-slicked blade at others — has spoken to the black community’s triumphs and tragedies. Then he said that the 400 years of enslavement African Americans endured sounded “like a choice.” He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He proudly does not take his prescribed medication.
West is a frustrating puzzle for fans and critics alike. The pieces look like they should fit together to form a cohesive picture, but some are too jagged, others too smooth. And none can be simply left in the box.
After announcing his candidacy via Twitter on the Fourth of July, the roller coaster that is West’s path to the White House began.
Could he even run? The deadline to get his name printed on the ballot in several states had already passed. On July 8, West called Forbes magazine — whose validation he seemingly craves because of the publication’s billionaires list — to talk policy. The resulting interview is a brain dump of bizarre ideas involving the fictional country of Wakanda and Tesla chief Elon Musk.
The next day, TMZ reported that West’s family (read: the Kardashian machine) was concerned that he was in the throes of a manic episode brought on by his bipolar disorder.
Later, New York magazine reported that Steve Kramer, a New York-based campaign consultant who said he had been working with West, declared that the rapper was officially “out” of the race. But about the same time, Ye was hitting send on a Twitter video showing the superstar registering to vote for the first time. And on Wednesday, West filed the Federal Election Commission paperwork required to appear on the ballot in Oklahoma.
Is your head spinning? Are your eyes rolling? Fair enough. But — according to Chris Redfield — we still can’t ignore Kanye West.
Redfield is the research director at Redfield & Wilton Strategies based in the United Kingdom. On Tuesday, his firm released results of the first national U.S. poll with West’s name included as a candidate in the November election. Of the 2,000 registered U.S. voters polled, 2 percent said they would vote for West.
“Most don’t take him seriously and don’t think he is actually going to run. That it’s just [West] injecting himself into a public debate,” Redfield said.
But publicity stunt or no, it would be a mistake, added Redfield, to simply discount the “College Dropout” hitmaker.
As a rule, the polling firm pays close attention to third-party candidates because of their potential to shake up the status quo. That was the calculus at Redfield & Wilton for adding West into their data research. So, for as long as it is officially possible for West to be in the race, the firm will be tracking his progress.
“We measure all the variables that could have an impact,” Redfield said. “It would be a mistake not to at least look at the prospect of what happens if he does run.”
That’s the major question: What could happen? What do the next four months of political discourse look like if West continues to flirt with a presidential run?
Even with the leaks in cultural capital because of his own combustible comments about slavery, Trump and the 13th Amendment, West is still viewed by some as a powerful symbol of protest.
His first real political moment came in 2005. From the stage of a live Hurricane Katrina telethon fundraiser, the rapper went completely off script (or did he?) and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” That was almost a decade and a half ago. But West’s singular ability to tap into the roadblocks and rapture of his community is still apparent in his art.
His recent video “Wash Us in the Blood” is an exhibition of both black celebration and black pain. There is police brutality, pulpit praise and gangsters walking through prison halls. Next to those images West’s pixelated face appears on screen rapping about fake news, the holy spirit and how misunderstood he is.
Pollster Woodbury said the video is a visual manifestation of what he has been hearing in political focus groups recently.
According to Woodbury’s research, 60 percent of black men younger than 50 think Democrats take black voters for granted. Woodbury asked those voters why they would choose a third-party candidate. The answer? To send a message to both parties.
“That’s Kanye’s entire political message — that no one is delivering for black people,” Woodbury said.
At a recent focus group with young voters, Woodbury heard a black man in Milwaukee express a sentiment that the pollster could have sworn was also a West quote.
“He said, ‘My mama voted for Democrats, my grandmother voted for Democrats, my granddaddy voted for Democrats . . . and my ’hood has been the same for 50 years. So why the hell would I keep voting for Democrats?’ ”
“I have to wonder if Kanye is repeating what young people are saying or if they are repeating what he is saying. I think he’s going to inspire some very cynical voters frustrated with Democrats and Republicans,” said Woodbury, who added that there are “young people in this country that trust Kanye West more than they trust politicians.”
Not all young people are tempted to trust West. Chance the Rapper was roasted online last week when he wrote a tweet that seemed to support West’s campaign and asked: “are you more pro biden or anti ye and why?” Chance got his answer in a slew of replies about why people back former vice president Joe Biden over West.
“We already tried the dumb celebrity thing and it failed,” replied writer and comedian Akilah Hughes. “He didn’t even file the paperwork right like your friend didn’t do the homework and we aren’t gonna make him the teacher.”
The issue of trust is also a significant one when it comes to discussing West and his relationship with the media, especially in those moments when he is spewing the most bizarre headlining and head-scratching quotables.
“My issue is you can’t report on Kanye without also always mentioning that this man is diagnosed bipolar and off his meds,” said Bassey Ikpi, a mental health advocate and author of the book “I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying.”
The mistake the media makes, added Ikpi — who is vocal about her own bipolar diagnosis — is divorcing West’s most grandiose and off-the-wall proclamations from mental health. Being bipolar amplifies one’s personality while also removing one’s filter. It’s not an excuse for West’s behavior, she added, but a reason for it. So, while he’s telling Forbes magazine that vaccines are the “mark of the beast” and Planned Parenthood does “the Devil’s work,” there should be a parallel conversation about his mental health.
“It contextualizes what he says and why he’s saying it,” Ikpi said.
At this point in the narrative, the question of whether the media can or should ignore West is almost irrelevant. The 43-year-old music and fashion mogul is one of the most famous people on the planet right now. Millions buy his shoes, listen to his music, hang on his every tweet. He has one of the loudest bullhorns on the globe. Add to that Kim Kardashian-West’s own political muscle in criminal justice reform. Add to that her family’s collective social media influence. And West’s reach goes even further.
What’s more, to sway the vote in certain battleground states, West doesn’t need millions to write in his name, more like thousands, according to Woodbury. Eleven thousand votes in Michigan could change the color of that state in November. Six thousand people flocked to West’s Sunday Service concert in Detroit in September with less than a day’s notice.
The voters West could sway are the “none of the above” cohort, said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, who thinks West’s candidacy could help Trump.
“Trump’s play is to make the election as messy as possible in the hope that he’s got enough votes here and there,” Simmons said. “For him, the more chaotic, the more likely people will choose not to participate. And if Kanye is telling people it’s a mess and you can’t trust either one of them, that is actually a Trump message.”
West probably won’t be the next president of the United States. But could the rapper play a role in determining who is?
Third-party candidates have long been the boogeymen (and women) of American politics. Ralph Nader was blamed for shaving enough votes from Al Gore to cinch the extremely close election for George Bush. Jill Stein was seen as a thorn in Hillary Clinton’s side during her presidential runs. And no one can forget Ross Perot. None of these names made it to the White House, but they had an impact.
“People want to dismiss the irrational. It sounded irrational five years [ago] that Donald Trump would be president. It’s only crazy until someone pulls it off,” Woodbury said.