Yang thrives as Democratic outsider

Aaron Schwartz

Andrew Yang’s ride through the primaries has positioned him as the only person of color and lone outsider to qualify for Thursday’s Democratic debate, a stunning achievement for a previously unknown tech entrepreneur who is building a presidential campaign on the fly.

Yang, who is Asian American, has survived a winnowing process that has cut down some of the party’s brightest stars and produced a debate stage that many Democrats view as too white.

In a party that takes pride in its racial diversity, Yang is thriving as other candidates of color have fallen. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has dropped out of the race, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (Texas) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) failed to qualify for the debate in Los Angeles.

The tech entrepreneur has managed to outraise and outlast governors, senators and House members on the strength of his personality, viral momentum, grassroots enthusiasm and guerrilla marketing.

Yang’s style and background are the latest evidence that there is room in politics for outsiders and non-politicians.

“There’s still more to be done,” said campaign manager Nick Ryan. “We’ve found that when voters truly listen to what Andrew has to say, they very quickly consider him as one of their top choices. His message, in conjunction with our strong ground game, spell out tremendous upside for this campaign come February.”

At the moment, Yang looks to be a long shot to win the nomination, and he’s largely being treated as an afterthought by the news media and Washington insiders.

Yang barely met the polling threshold for the Los Angeles debate, making the stage by posting 4 percent support nationally in a Quinnipiac University survey released near the deadline to qualify.

Yang is only polling at 2.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa, and 4.5 percent in New Hampshire.

“It’s a real accomplishment that he continues to be on the debate stage and shows the hunger for an outsider, for something different,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist. “But I also think you’re starting to see the limitations. You can’t win the presidency based on online support.”

Still, the Yang campaign believes it has a lot of room to grow. Polls routinely show that most voters haven’t heard of Yang or don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. About three-quarters of Democratic primary voters have not firmly made up their minds yet about who to support.

“The most important thing we can do over the coming weeks is make sure that Iowans and New Hampshirites are hearing Andrew’s message,” Ryan said.

To that end, Yang this week wrapped a five-day bus tour through eastern Iowa that featured 17 stops with the aim of reaching voters “who have just started to tune in.”

The campaign is up to 13 field offices in Iowa after raising $10 million in the third quarter — millions more than established candidates like Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) raised.

Yang brought in $2 million over 10 days during his Iowa swing this month, and his fourth-quarter haul will exceed his third-quarter numbers, a campaign source said.

Now the campaign is eyeing an expansion, adding senior members to its national team and hiring a top-tier Washington consulting firm to cut advertisements.

Yang is running television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but has not done any national advertising. Instead, the campaign has lived largely off organic enthusiasm.

A campaign official told The Hill it has a robust “distributive program to empower volunteers” that has propelled interest in the candidate in states where the campaign does not have a presence.

In downtown Denver, for instance, the sidewalks are tagged with pro-Yang messages, such as “Google Andrew Yang.” Yang does not have any staff or offices in California, but is polling as well there as he is anywhere, with one recent survey putting him at 6 percent support in the Super Tuesday state.

A lot of interest in Yang has been driven by his unique policy proposals and been anchored by his support for a universal basic income.

At the November debate, a large chunk of time was committed to debating Yang’s warning that the U.S. is facing an employment crisis as automation renders working-class jobs obsolete.

Yang’s policy page is littered with niche proposals, from eliminating the penny to making Election Day a federal holiday.

He has also stood out for promoting the study of the psychedelic compound psilocybin to treat issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And he has spoken personally about needing to overhaul the health care system to address care for people with disabilities, such as his son, who has autism.

Democrats are praising Yang as the kind of innovative and forward-looking thinker who could play a role in making the government more dynamic.

But he’s also beginning to attract scrutiny from rivals and critics, particularly on health care, which has emerged as the core issue in the Democratic primary.

This month, Yang released a health care plan with six pillars that focuses on lowering prescription drug costs, investing in new technology, changing provider incentives, shifting focus to preventative care, expanding access to mental health care and diminishing the influence of special interests.

Yang says he supports the “spirit” of “Medicare for All,” but his plan has been dismissed by those who support the paths laid out by progressive candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“[Yang’s plan] is insufficient and doesn’t show a lot of guts or bold thinking,” said Wendell Potter, a former health care executive and proponent of Medicare for All. “It’s quite timid. It doesn’t give us what we need and it’s not clear how he plans to pull some of these things off.”

Yang’s arc in the race has Democrats chattering about his end game.

The first question the campaign must answer is whether Yang can translate his deep run and grassroots support into hard votes when ballots are cast beginning in February.

If he does not win the nomination, Yang has already said he’d be open to being a vice presidential candidate.

But the campaign insists that Yang is not in the race to be runner-up, and that the media and Washington insiders underestimate him at their own peril.

“This is only about winning,” said one Yang campaign insider. “People have been skeptical about what we could do from the beginning. Now we have 350,000 donors and has raised more money than more established names. We have the candidate and the message and the vision, and we’ll continue to bring more people into the fold.”

Tags 2020 Democratic primary Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Elizabeth Warren Tulsi Gabbard Yang campaign
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