The curious candidacy of Andrew Yang

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In a crowded Democratic presidential primary full of members of Congress, governors, mayors, a former Cabinet secretary, and a former vice president, first-time politician Andrew Yang definitely stands out. But while you might think it's for unflattering reasons, the reality is that while many of those elected officials have struggled to gain the traction necessary to stay in the race, Yang has qualified for the November debate, which is more than some of them can say.

Yang is best known for founding Venture for America, an organization that places aspiring entrepreneurs at startups in struggling cities. He's an entrepreneur, and yet he is currently sitting at seventh place in the RealClearPolitics polling average of the Democratic candidates. That's higher than New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. He also raised $10 million dollars last quarter, $5.2 million more than Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and only $1.8 million less than California Sen Kamala Harris, the fifth-place candidate. As high-profile politicians continue to drop out of the race — including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke last week— Yang does not show signs of going anywhere.

So, how has Andrew Yang’s 2020 campaign lasted this long? We've got the scoop.

Who are Andrew Yang's supporters?

Yang has amassed a vocal, dedicated army of followers who self-identify as “the Yang Gang.” These supporters often described as, "young, ideologically flexible voters who are sick of establishment politics. Members of the Yang Gang are internet savvy: From the beginning of his campaign, they have made memes of him, created songs about him, and released music videos.

While initially his campaign's presence was largest on Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit, as he's continued on in the primary race the energy has translated into growing crowds at his rallies as well. Yang has recently made it a priority to point out that his support does not just exist online, nor is it some sort of ironic joke.

“You don’t look like the f**king internet to me!” Yang shouted to a crowd last week at event in Iowa that his supporters have dubbed "Yangapalooza," per Vice.

But Yang has also leaned into this internet zeitgeist: He has made his signature campaign swag hats that say “MATH,” which stands for Make America Think Harder, a shot at Trump’s infamous MAGA branding. In April, he announced that he was going to campaign via hologram.

How has Andrew Yang differentiated himself?

Around the time that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren got attention — both positive and negative — for refusing to go on Fox News and calling the network a “hate for profit,” Yang was actively trying to talk to people across the ideological spectrum, doing an interview with the rightwing pundit Ben Shapiro, which is certainly not a typical campaign stop for a Democratic candidate.

This communications strategy has allowed Yang to carve out his own lane in the crowded Democratic field. As Matt Stevens explained in The New York Times, “He has also built one of the most ideologically eclectic coalitions in the field, drawing support from progressives, libertarians, Trump voters and disaffected voters. His crowds tend to skew young and male.”

This spread across the spectrum has also created liabilities for Yang’s campaign. Early in his campaign, white supremacists began pushing his candidacy online. His willingness to go on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox, and the Joe Rogan Experience podcast — which The Verge described as "often a crossover point between mainstream culture and the fringe right" — has exposed his candidacy and messages to audiences that other Democrat candidates would never reach. Though some of his Tweets have been cited by white supremacists on sites like 4Chan to allege he supports their cause, Yang has only ever unequivocally condemned that ideology.

Yang has also unabashedly leaned into making stereotypical jokes about his race. In the September debate, when talking about health care policy, he quipped, "I'm Asian so I know a lot of doctors." Another favorite refrain of his has been: "The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math." While it's a way of using humor to open a dialogue around his race — one that's rarely seen in national politics — his cracks have been polarizing.

What is Andrew Yang's signature proposal?

Yang initially gained attention by creating an extensive policy page that included some rather eclectic proposals, including “The Penny Makes No Cents,” “Empowering MMA Fighters,” and the “American Mall Act,” but he's mainly framed candidacy around a single economic imperative. His main focus is automation, and protecting workers from the economic fallout that could come with it. “In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies—and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it,” he writes on his website.

Based on the doomsday framing of the automation revolution, Yang has staked out a signature position that none of the other candidates are talking about: universal basic income, a form of social security that creates a guaranteed minimum income by providing lump sums of money to all citizens, no strings attached.

Under Yang’s proposal — which he calls the “Freedom Dividend” — every American adult over the age of 18 would receive $1,000 per month. These dividends would be supplementary to other income, not in place of a job, Yang has said, pointing out adult Americans cannot live off of $12,000 a year without being considered in extreme poverty.

Proponents of Yang's plan argue that it would give Americans more economic freedom and the ability to pursue passions, take career risks, or start businesses. Opponents point to the way the plan would require people who are already receiving government services — like welfare or food stamps — to opt out of those programs before being eligible to receive the Freedom Dividend.

With the changing economy and modernization of technology in mind, Yang has framed his entire campaign and candidacy through the idea of a new form of capitalism called “Human Capitalism.” In Yang’s own words, there are three central tenets of this economic system: Humans are more important than money; the foundational unit of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar; markets exist to serve our common goals and values.

The idea allows Yang to push back on accusations that he's a “socialist," given that his signature idea is an expansion of the safety net; this way, he gets to explicitly identify as a capitalist. But beyond that, it also allows him to distance himself from the current form of capitalism in America, which he insists has major moral flaws, often pointing to skyrocketing drug prices and the insidious influence of Big Pharma.

What are Andrew Yang's chances? Seriously.

Yang is currently the last New York State Democrat standing in the primary, having improbably outlasted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. At the beginning of this quarter, he had over $6 million cash on hand, and his candidacy has been fueled by small dollar donors giving less than $200 — often considered to be a more sustainable form of cashflow.

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Still, while he has slowly grown his support and clearly has a cohort of dedicated followers already, his polling numbers have been stagnant in the low single digits. His ability to build a unique coalition may not be broad enough to carry him through the winter campaigning season.

Yang is one of nine candidates to qualify for the November debate, though he has not yet joined the ranks of the top five — Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Harris — who have already made the December showdown.

If he cannot qualify for that debate, it's unclear how his campaign would react. He would lose out on critical exposure on national TV, but he has already created unique channels of communication online, and that wouldn't go away.

For Yang, who entered the race as a longshot — and despite his successes still very much is one — staying in the race could have other incentives. A Cabinet position is not out of the question, though Yang would be quite the unconventional choice for the career politicians leading the race. At the least, brand recognition has never been a bad thing for a businessman.

For now, at least, we know one thing: Yang has run an atypical campaign, amassed an atypical following, and pushed atypical policies. At the moment, it looks to be paying off.