Andrew Yang is a rock star to his supporters. Can that propel him to the presidency?
(CNN) — Andrew Yang may have been born online. But his presidential candidacy is coming of age in real life.
Yang’s once quixotic bid to be president — one during which even the businessman’s family and friends asked “president of what?” when he told them of his aspirations — is now a full-fledged campaign, propelled by a devout following of liberal Democrats, libertarians and some disaffected Republicans who believe his unique policy positions are the perfect antidote to President Donald Trump. That following, known affectionately as the “Yang Gang” (and individual members as “Yangsters”), has the businessman polling better than most of the field.
Yang, with his non-political background and free-wheeling style, is a unique political figure. But what makes him truly singular in the Democratic field are his rallies, which appear more like concerts than political gatherings. The stage may be devoid of instruments, but Yang’s stump speech has become so familiar to his devoted following that many in the audience are acutely aware with the ebbs and flows of his remarks and come prepared for their political idol to play the hits.
Any mention of “MATH” — a pseudo rallying cry for the Yang faithful that means “Make America Think Harder” — elicits prolonged chants. When Yang mentions using PowerPoint during his hypothetical State of the Union, the audience chants the name of the Microsoft software. And so many questions are in the speech that members of the audience gauge their knowledge of the candidate by how quickly and easily they can shout answers back at him.
“When was the last time,” Yang asked here in Cambridge, “that America’s life expectancy declined for three years in a row?”
The audience, a diverse but predominantly male gathering, swelled and shouted back “Spanish flu, Spanish flu, Spanish flu,” chanting the name of the 100 year-old pandemic.
A smiling Yang continued: “The Spanish flu of 1918 a hundred years ago. We are back in Spanish flu territory because of suicides and drug overdoses.”
It’s an odd scene, but give-and-takes like this play out regularly throughout Yang’s standard stump speech, making him — at times — feel more like a traveling musician than a political candidate.
“It lets me know that they are hardcore Yang Gang enthusiasts, that they know the message, that they brought friends, that they might’ve seen me speak before in some venue and they’re back again, which means that there’s something very powerful drawing us together,” Yang told CNN during an interview in Philadelphia before a rally. “There is an element of feeling a little bit like a traveling troubadour.”
Yang, like a musician who knows their audiences would rather hear the hits, added: “They expect certain things.”
Tom McCormick, a 39-year-old who watched Yang from the front row of the businessman’s Philadelphia rally, echoed the musician sentiment.
“He’s basically one of those little indie bands that no one knew about and played in a garage,” he said. “And now he is starting to get a little more mainstream. … I am just happy other people are finally catching on.”
From Joe Rogan to Joe Biden
Yang, the son of immigrants from Taiwan who was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1975, is the product of some of the nation’s elite schools: Phillip Exeter for high school, Brown University for his undergraduate degree and Columbia Law School for his law degree.
He wasn’t deeply into politics as a student, but he ran to lead three different student organizations during his time in school. All three tries were unsuccessful.
“I’m something like 0 for 3,” he told CNN. “I’m hoping to be one for four. … The one big one will be president of the United States.”
Yang briefly worked for a law firm in New York City after graduating from Columbia, but he was quickly pulled toward the world of startups in the early 2000s. He was the vice president of a health care start up from 2002 to 2005 before he became managing director — and then CEO — of the test-prep company Manhattan Prep.
After the company was bought in 2009, Yang started Venture for America, a non-profit that connects recent college graduates with start-ups. It was that experience that raised Yang’s profile in Washington; in 2015, President Barack Obama named Yang an ambassador for global entrepreneurship.
Yang, inspired by the federal government’s lack of a response to automation, may have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president on November 6, 2017, but it wasn’t until February 12, 2019, when Yang sat down for an almost two-hour long podcast with stand-up comedian and TV personality Joe Rogan, that his campaign gained a national following.
The podcast has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube and, more often than not, Yang rally attendees trace their knowledge of the businessman to it. A Yang aide said it was “absolute chaos” after Yang sat down with Rogan, with support flooding into a campaign that wasn’t ready to handle the influx.
“There was before Joe Rogan and after Joe Rogan,” Yang recalled.
It’s hard for him to say exactly what initially animated people, but the candidate believes that being considered a dark horse early in the contest, especially when so many voters detest “politics as usual,” was a blessing.
“I think Americans like to root for the underdog,” Yang says, looking back on the early days of his campaign, where he says he was inspired to run after an unnamed person in Washington, DC, told him no one in the federal government would adopt the kind of radical change he was advocating unless he brought a “wave crashing down on our heads from other parts of the country.”
“And I said, ‘challenge f—— accepted,'” he bellowed to raucous applause in Cambridge.
Yang was considered a gadfly early in the Democratic primary and written off by other candidates. That has since changed, with Yang now standing on stage with the Democratic Party’s top politicians, sparring with a former vice president and multiple United States senators. The businessman has turned his campaign into a growing online powerhouse: Yang’s fundraising number for the third quarter of 2019 is set to dwarf the $2.8 million he raised in the year’s second quarter, an aide said. It would be the continuing of an upward trend for his fundraising; he raised $1.8 million in the first quarter of 2019.
And Yang’s polling has followed his fundraising. A recent CNN poll found Yang at 4% among likely caucusgoers in Nevada, a survey that got him within one early state poll above 3% from qualifying for the November Democratic debate.
Still, that initial rejection from the Democratic establishment and media continues to fuel Yang, who claims he has always believed his presidential run would be successful.
“I got to say,” he told the audience, “I’m enjoying sticking into the people who didn’t think that we were going to make it there.”
And in conversations with dozens of Yang supporters, the sense that Yang is still being written off by the political establishment is a powerful motivating force for his diehard supporters.
“The more that happens,” said Hsiu-Lan Chang, a 68-year-old retired businesswoman who was covered in Yang buttons near the front of the candidate’s Cambridge rally, “the more the gang gets energized.”
$1,000 for everyone
Yang is seemingly in constant motion, his boundless energy apparent even in the dullest moments of campaigning. During CNN’s interview with him, Yang shadow boxed around the hotel conference room, bouncing between high-backed leather chairs as his fists jabbed in front of him. The moment he hit the stage in both Boston and Philadelphia, he proudly danced, swaggering to the front of the stage with confidence.
Yang says he considers himself “confident,” not cocky, but it’s clear he and his aides believe it would be difficult not to be self-assured after the unexpected success he has had.
A central reason to that success is the dominant issue to his campaign: The Freedom Dividend, a plan to give every American adult $1,000 a month, a universal basic income that Yang argues would alleviate a host of social ills and eradicate poverty. Yang, as a way to demonstrate its benefits, has given a Freedom Dividend to three people for months from his personal fortune. At the September debate, he announced plans to give it to 10 more people using his campaign funds.
The plan has electrified Yang’s supporters, who see it as the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that only a candidate like Yang could propose.
“I’m hustling from job to job to job. $1,000 a month wouldn’t sustain me, but it wouldn’t let me fall down, it would be a great safety net,” said Fred King, a Yang supporter who says he lost his job this year as a cameraman to automation. “Now, it doesn’t mean I can live off of it, but I can be able to maintain and look for other work and eventually, when I find another job, I’ll be in a great place.”
While Yang’s universal basic income isn’t the only issue motivating Yang’s run — his website is littered with hundreds of policy positions and he talks often about the impact automation will have on the country’s work force — it is the most important to the candidate, who laughed when asked if he would trade being president for instituting a universal basic income in the United States.
“Who would even need to think about that,” he asked rhetorically. “I’d be thrilled if we got a freedom dividend across the finish line. And, you know, I’d enjoy being in the room to see it get signed into law.”
Yang exudes the confidence of a candidate who didn’t expect to be where he is and has little to lose. He crowd-surfed at an event in September, regularly posts video of himself playing basketball and and tweeted on Wednesday, “People who are surprised by our success to date will be really surprised by what happens next.”
And he believes it.
Yang told CNN that when he plotted his campaign in 2017, the current trajectory he is on was among the most optimistic outcomes he could perceive.
But, Yang was clear to say, he believes there’s more to come: winning the presidency.
“I always believed that we’d be successful. And when some people ask me, ‘Are you surprised to be here,’ I’m genuinely not,” he said. “I thought we’d be successful… and we’re going to become more successful than we are right now.”
Yang — a happy warrior who is more adept at Twitter than many of his own followers — has united a group of political outsiders, many of whom supported Republicans and libertarians in the past, around his message.
But, after months of success, there is a noticeable divide in Yang’s movement.
His appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast is so central to his rise that it has created distinctions within Yang supporters: The so-called “Original Gangster” Yang Gang — those who learned about him from Rogan or before — and those who learned about him more recently from debates or other media appearances. People who introduce Yang often tout themselves as “OG” members of the Yang Gang and any time spent with a group of Yang supporters often leads to questions about how each person found out about the candidate.
Jason Sherfey, a 35-year old research professor at Boston University who was volunteering at Yang’s Cambridge rally, said that distinction plays out online, too.
“I think that this is a campaign that is painting an optimistic future that could heal the country,” he said, “and to have been an early part of that is something that excites a lot of people.”
He added: “It’s not a huge thing, but you can tell that people are proud.”
This could be an issue for Yang. In order to have any chance of winning on 2020, Yang will have to welcome in new supporters, many of whom have never listened to Yang’s appearance with Rogan. And that could create rifts with some of the candidate’s most diehard supporters.
Yang dismissed the concerns by — once again — likening himself to a garage band that makes it big.
“I certainly love and appreciate all the early adopters of this campaign because they saw the vision when, frankly, it was really difficult for them to be able to convince others of it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any tension between people who are very, very early and all the folks who are joining now.”
He added: “I liken it to fans of a rock band, like Arcade Fire. Are you a little proud if you saw Arcade Fire in a little venue? Sure! But do you begrudge the fact that now other people have discovered what you love?”
“My hope,” he said with a pause as he reflected on the rise of the Canadian indie rock band, “is that I can replicate the rise of Arcade Fire… and go from clubs to arenas.”