fb-pixel
Ground Game

What does the lasting power of Andrew Yang tell us about politics today?

Andrew Yang spoke during the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester in September.
Andrew Yang spoke during the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester in September. Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

He started his run for president as a random guy with an interesting idea. During his first trip to New Hampshire, in the spring of 2018, his audience was a single person at a Concord coffee shop. He pitched giving every American adult $1,000 a month.

Andrew Yang was on track to be an also-ran, at best an asterisk in the 2020 Democratic primary for president.

He still might be. But now, the 44-year-old entrepreneur’s campaign events can draw thousands who chant his stump speech back to him. He looks on track to meet the fund-raising and polling metrics to make the December presidential debate. Through Nov. 25, he’s spent $5 million on advertising, according to a tracking firm, more than Senators Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar. And in the last two weeks, no one has spent more on Iowa television ads than Yang.

Advertisement



He’s outlasted governors and members of Congress who had access to all the trappings of a traditional campaign, from high-dollar donors to campaign consultants. Indeed, three more candidates, including Harris, dropped out of the race this week.

Donald Trump told us about the state of politics in 2016. The fact that Yang is in the game at all tells us something about 2020.

“Yang might be teaching us a lot about how to run for president because he has certainly had to do it all on his own without the party,” said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist who has written extensively about the presidential nominating process.

In a telephone interview between events in New Hampshire, where snow was still falling, Yang said there isn’t anything radical about the way he is running. That a candidate doesn’t need to be a sitting senator or governor, or a have a big e-mail list, or be a billionaire to find success.

Advertisement



“What you need is a clear sense of what is making millions of Americans miserable, and a real set of solutions, and a vision for the country moving forward,” Yang said Tuesday. “That sounds like really obvious, but they are inobvious to just about everyone in the race.”

Much of how Yang is running harkens to the old playbook: Anyone can grow up to be president if they spend enough time in Iowa and New Hampshire convincing people they have good ideas for the country. Yang has been to New Hampshire more than any other major candidate, according to a New England Cable News schedule tracker.

Yang caught his break in February when he appeared on a popular podcast, a two-hour interview that’s now been watched on YouTube nearly 4.5 million times. He explained his signature idea: Give $1,000 a month to every adult US citizen, no strings attached, as a way to counteract the job displacement from automation.

The concept, called a Universal Basic Income, is not new. Thomas Paine talked about the idea, and, 172 years later, so did Martin Luther King Jr. There were votes on such proposals in Congress during the Nixon era.

As Yang points out on the stump, Alaska offers a form of the income to its residents, paid for by oil money. He says data is the 21st century’s version of oil, and he plans to tax data, along with imposing a value-added tax, a type of levy popular in many other countries. To raise revenue on data, Yang has suggested taxing digital ads and allowing consumers to “own” their data and be compensated if they decide to opt in to letting companies use their personal information.

Advertisement



After the podcast, he gained supporters online and won enough donations and polled well enough to make every Democratic debate so far. At the moment, he needs just one more poll showing him with at least 4 percent support to qualify for the Dec. 19 debate. Currently, only six of the remaining 16 Democratic candidates have met the debate threshold.

“What Yang has done in this campaign is nothing less than remarkable,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, a current member of the Democratic National Committee. “I admit that when he started running I was like, ‘Hmm, OK,’ but now his campaign is something to notice.”

Sullivan, who isn’t backing anyone in the primary, attributes Yang’s rise to his outsider status, his youth at a time when some in the party seek generational change, and the fact that he appears to be having fun. Videos of Yang crowd surfing and dancing “the cupid shuffle” with seniors have gone viral.

He is also raising a lot of money. At the end of October, Yang had close to the amount of campaign cash that former vice president Joe Biden did.

On Saturday, Yang raised more than $750,000 online, the most he has ever raised in a single day. What’s remarkable is that his campaign simply asked for the money — there was no fund-raising deadline or viral moment or debate requirement.

Advertisement



With that money, Yang has quickly bought television ads and expanded his staff. In New Hampshire, he has close to 50 staffers and nine offices. The goal, some aides have said, is to continue hiring to put Yang in contention for the largest team on the ground.

Yang says he likes campaigning in New Hampshire, in part because it reminds him of his high school years at Phillips Exeter Academy, the exclusive boarding school he attended before going to Brown University for college.

“I have a habit of putting ’90s music on when I am here so I can put myself back into my adolescence,” Yang said of his campaigning in the state.

Last month, Yang told reporters that he needed to finish in the top three in New Hampshire. But in the Globe interview on Tuesday he said, “We need to do well, but the funny thing is that expectations are so low among the press, it will be easy to surprise people.”

Still, he’s not yet been able to rally support among the local and national political elites who can help propel a presidential campaign to victory, and he’s struggled to break through on cable television.

Yang has notched the endorsements of tech leaders such as Elon Musk. But he doesn’t have any endorsements from members of Congress or high-ranking Democratic officials anywhere in the country. In all five Democratic debates, he received the least amount of airtime.

Advertisement



Yet there is probably no candidate on the stage for whom a debate performance matters less. Simply making the stage validates his place in the campaign. Despite the lack of airtime, Yang said he raised $2 million in the days following each of the last two debates.

“We joke around the office that we have the highest airtime-to-impact ratio of any candidate,” Yang said.

He is often so forgotten on cable news channels that he’s not even mentioned as part of the contest, despite polling sixth nationally, ahead of 10 other contenders. In response, his supporters have made the hashtag #YangMediaBlackout trend on Twitter.

Even skeptics are impressed with Yang’s campaign, but they rightly note he is a long way from the nomination.

For months, most polls have found him mired at around 3 percent support.

“Let me know when he gets 33 percent,” said longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic presidential campaign. “I am not taking anything away from him, but it should be pretty easy to find 3 percent of people who want a thousand dollars a month. For him to grow, he will have to convince people that he can get elected on this idea.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com.