“MATH” hats. Fox News. The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Andrew Yang knows how to run an insurgent presidential campaign. The 44-year-old candidate, once barely known outside New York and Silicon Valley, is now leader of the “Yang Gang,” a growing following of online fans and IRL admirers rallying to Yang’s campaign cry of “humanity first.”
Yang is now outpolling seasoned pols like Kirsten Gillibrand, averaging 1% in recent surveys. Despite being “neither popular nor well-known,” as a FiveThirtyEight story puts it, he’s disturbing the forces of the Democratic establishment. His rallies are attracting thousands of people (paywall). A two-hour appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February garnered almost 3 million views. He’s winning over betting markets, which have given the long-shot candidate 2.3% odds at taking the White House, besting senator Corey Booker and Texas phenom Beto O’Rourke. Despite his distance from Washington, Yang’s surge shows that a candidate seemingly assembled from the musings of a Silicon Valley Reddit thread can take on the Democratic establishment.
Yang’s done it in part by stealing the most effective tactics from Trump’s electoral victory. Need a visible symbol for your followers? Sell $30 MATH hats (“Make America Think Harder”) and own the meme game. Need to vanquish better-known primary opponents? Flood every media outlet that will give you an interview. No one is talking about a controversial, radical idea? Turn it into your signature issue, rechristening universal basic income, a guaranteed payment to every American, as a $1,000 “freedom dividend” (and force primary rivals like Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke to come out against it). As other candidates play it safe, Yang doubles down on policies that no reasonable wonk would touch, and promotes them on Republican turf such as Fox News (a tactic his fellow long-shot candidates have adopted).
Politically speaking, Yang presents himself as Trump’s antithesis. “The opposite of Donald Trump,” Yang told one of his rallies this year (paywall), “is an Asian man who likes math!” That may be true as far as his policies go. But his campaign strategy is an homage to America’s most unlikely president (without the racism and xenophobia). Yang is among the few to have effectively staked the outsider lane of the Democratic primary while making it look authentic. If Yang wins, the title of the most unlikely American president in modern history will pass to the Taiwanese-American and former test-prep CEO without a political office to his name.
So far, Yang’s strategy has whipped up grassroots support. He’s raised $2 million (paywall) from more than 65,000 supporters, enough to win a spot on the Democratic primary debate stage in June. His fans lean millennial, left, and young, but (as with Trump) he’s scrambled voters’ partisan allegiances. His campaign video features plaudits from far-right Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Rev. Al Sharpton. Even the “alt-right” crowd, which Yang has repeatedly denounced, has glommed onto his presidential bid.
With little to lose, Yang just keeps saying things that make people believe. Nicholas Der, a 27-year-old financial coach, told Politico he had only learned of Yang a week before coming to his Iowa rally in May. There, Yang was selling his freedom dividend and warning against an automation apocalypse. “What are the truck drivers going to do when the robot trucks come and start driving themselves?” Yang asked (paywall). That was enough for Der. “Two minutes in, I was like, ‘I love this dude,’” Der said. “He is the truth.”
The thirst for truth is found in many voters these days. After transitioning from the hopeful talk of the Obama era to the hangover of the Trump administration, some Democratic voters want a hard break from conventional politics. Yang has been happy to stake out such positions. His website has 80 policy proposals. If a position exists, you’re likely to find it there. Pay NCAA college athletes. Free marriage counseling. Empowering mixed martial arts fighters. Abolish the penny. Automatic voter registration. Make Puerto Rico a state. Revitalize American malls.
Many sound like gimmicks. But his message boils down to the argument that the American social contract is broken. The old divide between socialism and capitalism no longer works. In an economy dominated by robots and software, he argues, we need to rethink everything. “The problem is the government is outdated and dysfunctional, and doesn’t have the ability to update itself,” he told Quartz last year. “You need to rewrite the operating system of the government.” Failing to do so, he said, is “a sure path to dystopia.”
Yang told Quartz last year, “I’m running to win. But if I mainstream a few of these issues, I will sleep well at night.” That, of course, was 10 months and an obscurity ago. With warm receptions in places like Iowa, profiles in Time, Politico, and the New York Times (paywall), there’s a sense he has a shot. Gamblers keep raising odds in his favor (he was at 0% in March).
The thing about betting markets, say researchers, is they capture what political surveys often miss: early enthusiasm. It may be that most people simply haven’t heard of Yang yet. When they do on the Democrats’ primary debate stage on June 26, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.