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Andrew Yang, shut out of debate, hosts a pre-debate rally with MATH pins and birthday cake

DES MOINES — Andrew Yang bounded on the stage here like he always does, grinning and grooving to ‘‘Return of the Mack,’’ that slinky, old-school ‘90s jam that has served as his signature walk-on music since the early summer.

The R&B song was an expertly unconventional choice for 2020’s most unconventional candidate. Written off early on by party insiders who refused to take seriously a political unknown like him, the entrepreneur and former nonprofit executive has assembled an intense grass-roots following that has helped him attract some of the biggest crowds in the race, raise more than $16.5 million in the last quarter, and outlast better-known candidates in the field, including three senators and two governors.

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On Monday night, there was more evidence of the Yang phenomenon. About 700 people, many of them dressed in the campaign’s signature MATH hats and ‘‘Yang Gang’’ T-shirts, were crammed into a second-floor ballroom here at Drake University, a massive crowd on a cold, snowy evening for a candidate who barely gets a fraction of the news coverage of his Democratic rivals.

‘‘This is enormous! This is incredible!’’ Yang called out as he took the stage, sounding, as he often does, as shocked as anybody at how far his candidacy has gotten.

But there was something bittersweet about it all. The event took place just a few buildings away from the campus theater, where presidential hopefuls gathered Tuesday night for the seventh debate of the primary season, the last before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Feb. 3 caucuses. But Yang wasn’t there, having failed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s rules of entry.

To qualify for the debate, candidates needed to hit 5 percent in four polls approved by the DNC either nationally or in the early-voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) or 7 percent in two early state polls plus raise money from 225,000 individuals including 1,000 donors in at least 20 states.

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Yang easily met the fund-raising goal but failed to meet the polling threshold, having hit 5 percent in just two polls, including Friday’s Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll. But Yang and his supporters are making the best of it.

His campaign organized a debate-eve rally that attracted a crowd far larger than those who have turned out recently for other candidates. On Tuesday, Yang’s supporters organized Yang National Visibility Day, sending people to knock on doors and wave signs across the country — including Iowa, where he and his team are hoping to surprise people with a better-than-expected showing.

Not unlike Senator Bernie Sanders, Yang is banking on a surge of new voters, including young people and Iowans across party lines who may not have participated in a caucus before. Unlike other campaigns, his has appeared to invest very little in the kind of traditional field operation that finds and gets those voters out to caucus. His campaign organizers are hoping that will happen organically, just as his supporters across the state have worked on their own for months to get the word out about his candidacy.

Using his surge of contributions, most of which came from small-dollar donors, Yang has invested about $3 million to air television ads across Iowa in recent weeks trying to increase his name identification among voters. One ad touts his signature proposal of handing out $1,000 a month to all Americans above the age of 18 as a way of stimulating and remaking the economy, including in rural America. Another tackles the cost of prescription drugs. But it’s unclear if the ads are helping his candidacy.

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On Monday night, very few people in the crowd raised their hands when Yang asked if they had come to the event after seeing one of his ads. ‘‘Oh,’’ Yang replied, a hint of amusement in his voice. ‘‘We spent of a lot of money on those ads. This is actually quite upsetting.’’

But there are tangible signs that Yang has sparked something in the race. In recent months, other candidates have adopted some of Yang’s talking points into their stump speeches here. That includes Biden, who has raised the threat of automation on job loss and cited some of the same examples Yang has, like the development of self-driving trucks on the trucking industry.

And advisers for rival campaigns say they have detected positive signs for Yang in their private polling, including praise from voters who like that he doesn’t sound like a politician and is talking about issues that other candidates are not.