Black Democratic officials and organizers in Wisconsin watched in horror as rapper Kanye West appeared to qualify for the state’s presidential ballot this week with the help of Republican operatives – not because they are worried he will be successful, but because they believe the GOP efforts are based on racist, lazy assumptions about young Black people.
“They assume Black guy, rapper – jackpot! It’s like that is their only association with Black people – color of skin and hip-hop music,” said Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor.
West in recent days – with the help of veteran Republican lawyers and operatives – has filed petition signatures and paperwork to run for president as an independent candidate in several states. To date, West is on the ballot in Illinois, Oklahoma and Vermont. In Arkansas, Missouri, West Virginia and Wisconsin, he has made the ballot but the signatures he submitted have not yet been verified. His campaign also submitted signatures to get on the ballot Wednesday in Colorado and Ohio.
He’s been helped by Republican operatives and welcomed by GOP state officials, an effort that’s been effectively green-lit by President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday said he had “nothing to do” with West qualifying for states’ ballots but that the rapper has “got a good heart, a very good heart. And I like Kanye very much.”
Black Democratic officials and progressive activists in Wisconsin reacted largely with disgust to West’s efforts in what is expected to be among the most crucial swing states in November’s election. But some expressed trepidation that – if the presidential race is a nail-biter there – West earning even a fraction of the 188,000 votes that went to third-party or independent candidates there four years ago could become a significant factor.
“This is 2020, so the completely ridiculous happens,” said Chris Walton, the Milwaukee Democratic chairman and a state legislative candidate.
West’s presence on the ballot could require explaining to voters that casting a ballot for him would help Trump, said Angela Lang, progressive organizer in Milwaukee.
“It’s definitely something that we’re paying attention to, because we know the numbers – we know that Donald Trump won the state of Wisconsin by 22,748 votes,” Lang said. “We’re playing it by ear. We’re watching it very closely.”
She quickly added: “Then the immediate other response is, how incredibly offensive and racist it is to really just think that Black voters aren’t going to understand the tricks that they’re trying to play.”
The Republican strategy seizes on a perceived lack of support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden among young black voters, despite the fact that Biden largely won the Democratic primary because of his deep support among black voters.
Polling shows that Biden enjoys a massive lead with Black voters – an analysis of 10 polls from CNN’s Harry Enten in July found Biden leads among Black voters by an 83% to 8%, a 75-point margin. That lead, though, is a slight improvement for Trump, who trailed Clinton by 79 points among Black voters in pre-2016 election polling.
But Biden’s support among Black adults is not monolithic and far stronger with older Black adults. A recent Washington Post poll found that 87% of Black seniors said the former vice president is “sympathetic to the problems of Black people in America,” while that figure drops to 66% with adults under 40.
And West’s candidacy is a clear attempt to play into that dichotomy – mimicking the Trump campaign’s two-fold strategy to both court younger Black men at the same time that his campaign attempts to suppress support for Biden.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Wednesday that a Republican source said the goal was for West to draw 107,000 votes there, the same as Libertarian Gary Johnson earned in 2016 – a target that a GOP operative familiar with West’s effort confirmed to CNN.
Black Democratic leaders in Wisconsin, where Democrats hope a stronger Black turnout, especially in Milwaukee, will boost Biden’s chances, said the notion that West would earn that much support from Black voters just because of his status as a celebrity – without expressing any policy platform, and without qualifying for the ballot in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes – was offensive.
“It’s racist. They’re not even trying to hide the racism,” said Walton, the Milwaukee Democratic chair.
Characterizing Trump and Republicans’ approach to the 2020 election, he said, “Protect Robert E. Lee and the statues, the Confederate flag is America, and we’re going to put a Black rapper on the ballot because Black people aren’t smart enough.”
“This is the same thing we’ve been screaming about forever. It’s just, the Republicans aren’t trying to hide it this time,” Walton said.
Republicans pushing West’s candidacy is part of a broader effort to diminish Black voters’ enthusiasm for Biden. Trump on Thursday seized on comments from Biden, who – in discussing cultural differences between Latinos in different states, naming Florida, which is heavily Puerto Rican and Cuban, and Arizona, where Latinos are largely of Mexican descent – said that “unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things.”
“Wow! Joe Biden just lost the entire African American community. What a ‘dumb’ thing to say!” Trump tweeted, including a link to an account of Biden’s comments from the far-right website Breitbart.
Democratic operatives nationally said they don’t believe Trump’s strategy will work.
“It is not surprising at all that they would fall into racist tropes and stereotypes about Black voters, who are not a monolith,” said Nina Smith, a veteran Democratic operative who was Pete Buttigieg’s top spokeswoman during the 2020 race. “And it represents their fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening in Black culture because Kanye has been has been disinvited from the cookout for a long time now. If you look at this fan base, his fan base isn’t representative of the entire black community. They have had some issues with the way he has engaged himself, particularly when it comes to this president.”
She added: “People aren’t fooled by what the GOP is doing.”
Sylvia Beasley, an organizer for BLOC, Lang’s Milwaukee-based organization, said she was preparing a group to go door-to-door distributing literature recently when a man gathering signatures for West approached her and asked her to sign.
“I said, ‘Hell no.’ He just pulled off – he didn’t try to convince me,” she said.
But, Beasley said, she fears West’s presence on the ballot could “work just a little bit just on the strength of who Kanye is.” That, she said, is why progressives need to communicate to voters that the rapper’s candidacy is a spoiler designed to boost Trump’s chances.
“As long as people understand what’s going on out here, I don’t think it’s going to work,” she said.