STUART, Iowa — Andrew Yang knows that most Americans have absolutely no idea who he is. Even before he makes his expected debut on the presidential debate stage next month, he has a good guess what viewers will be thinking when the camera shifts to him.
He’s not wrong. A Taiwanese American entrepreneur, lawyer and philanthropist from New York who launched his long-shot bid for the presidency more than a year ago, Yang is barely a blip in most national polls, where his support ranks between 1 and 3 percent.
But Yang has become something of a below-the-radar phenomenon in the crowded field of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Some candidates far better known than he is have been struggling to catch fire on social media and are playing to smaller audiences; Yang has been packing in some of the largest crowds in the race — an estimated 3,000 in San Francisco; 2,000 in Los Angeles; and 2,500 in Seattle, where he paused the rally to point out a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead.
“It’s a sign!” Yang declared, as supporters broke into a chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
While Democratic voters are so far largely embracing conventional politicians, the ability of an outsider like Yang to generate buzz shows how the unsettled political climate that paved the way for Donald Trump’s stunning 2016 rise is reverberating in the 2020 contest. Some of the more prominent Democratic candidates have tried to answer voter unease over the economy and the state of the country by staking out positions far more liberal than those held by the party four years ago — but Yang is selling himself as a total disrupter.
He has laid out nearly 80 policy proposals on his website, including his call for the NCAA to pay college athletes, and free marriage counseling for all. At the center of Yang’s campaign is what he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” a form of universal basic income that would give $1,000 each month to every American between ages 18 and 64. It has generated enough attention that voters have forced better-known candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) to take a position. (They both opposed it.)
Yang’s unconventional campaign has raised roughly $2 million and, more important, surpassed the threshold of 65,000 individual donors required to gain entry to the first primary debates scheduled for June and July.
That a political unknown like Yang has gained traction is a testament to his savvy use of modern media platforms that have been pure oxygen to a nontraditional candidate like him. Generally ignored by mainstream sites, Yang went big on social media and turned to podcasts such as “Freakonomics” (episode title: “Why is This Man Running for President?”) to get attention.
A two-hour podcast interview in February with Joe Rogan, a stand-up comedian, television host and mixed martial arts commentator, put Yang on the map. Rogan boasts an audience of millions — particularly young men — and has a devoted following on Twitter and Reddit, where some fans have half-jokingly referred to his show as “Oprah for Dudes.”
After the Rogan podcast, Yang’s Twitter followers jumped eightfold — going from roughly 34,000 to 287,000 in a little over a month. Online fans started creating thousands of memes and videos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media, spreading his campaign further.
Yang hasn’t yet assembled a traditional political infrastructure. His staff, mostly people in their 20s and early 30s who are new to politics, numbers fewer than a dozen. But his online army of support has elevated his profile immeasurably.
Recently, Yang has mused about deploying a hologram of himself on the campaign trail, allowing him to beam himself into multiple early-primary states at once. “Imagine that!” he said.
In substance and in style, Yang presents himself as a candidate relentlessly of the future. He warns that the United States is on the brink of a major job apocalypse, spurred by an increasing use of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace that ultimately will eliminate the need for human employees.
“What we did to the manufacturing workers we are now going to do to the retail workers, the call center workers, the fast-food workers, the truck drivers, and on and on through the economy,” Yang declared at a rally in Chicago in March. “This is a crisis.”
Yang has particularly fixated on the plight of truckers. Speaking at a recent rural issues forum in Stuart, a tiny town in western Iowa, a state where the trucking industry employs an estimated 98,000 drivers, Yang pointed to an incident in February in which scores of truck drivers snarled traffic on Indianapolis-area highways in protest of mandated electronic monitoring devices that track their hours.
“What are the truck drivers going to do when the robot trucks come and start driving themselves?” Yang asked.
A murmur went through the audience of about 200 people. An older man in jeans and a trucker cap shook his head at the thought. “Chaos,” the man said.
This is where Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” comes in. The $12,000 given annually to every U.S. adult up to age 64 would be funded in part by a 10 percent “value added tax” on technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, which he estimates would generate roughly $800 billion a year. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“You could call this the tech check,” Yang said. He has dismissed critics who say the money, paid out regardless of an individual’s income or employment status, would encourage people not to work. He argues that the added financial security will spur people to create businesses or go back to school, or take risks they might not otherwise take. “This isn’t about people being lazy,” he said.
He has also pitched the concept, for which he has not stipulated an overall cost, as a pro-business, pro-economic development idea that could potentially revive dying small towns.
“Some of [that money] would float up to Amazon. You’d buy an extra toaster or something, but most of it would stay right here because you would be investing in car repairs you had put off, and then tutoring for your kids, the occasional night out, trips to the hardware store,” Yang said in Iowa.
To prove his point, Yang decided to use his own money to give $1,000 a month to two people for a year — someone in New Hampshire, the other in Iowa, the first voting states. In late December, Yang began sending a monthly check to the Fassi family in Goffstown, N.H.
In 2017, just as his daughter Janelle was beginning her freshman year at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Charles Fassi was laid off from his job as a manager at a small chemical services company. Fassi, 49, said he felt suicidal, wondering how he could support his family.
While Fassi is now back at work, the family still struggled financially. Janelle met Yang at a Young Democrats of New Hampshire event and submitted an application for her family to be a test case for the monthly payments. After interviewing the family, Yang presented the first $1,000 check on New Year’s Eve. Fassi said the money has been mainly used to help pay for Janelle’s tuition, but Fassi said he and his wife are thinking of starting their own business.
“One thing I like about Andrew is that throughout all of this, he’s never asked us to vote for him. He’s never asked us to do anything for his campaign. He’s never tried to tell us what we can tell the media or anybody about this,” Fassi said. “When he came to our house, he said he was just trying to start a conversation. It wasn’t about him becoming president.”
That was enough to land Yang in the “top tier” of 2020 candidates that Fassi is considering voting for, though he is wary of the idea that people might think Yang is trying to buy his support. “I want to see how far he can go,” Fassi said, adding that he wasn’t comfortable backing a “fringe candidate.” He added that he likes Sen. Elizabeth Warren of neighboring Massachusetts, and soon he and his family will house a staffer working for another Democratic candidate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. “I was like, ‘Why not? I like Kamala Harris,’ ” he said.
Yang has yet to pick the Iowa recipient — his campaign is taking applications — but after the Des Moines Register questioned the legality of his spending, Yang’s campaign told the paper he would amend his Federal Election Commission report to list the $4,000 in checks he had written so far as gifts.
A native of Schenectady, N.Y., Yang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants who came to America in the 1960s. Yang recalled that he and his older brother were two of the only Asian American students at the local public school and were picked on. Later, as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, he was a self-described nerd and goth kid.
He studied political science and economics at Brown University before graduating from Columbia Law School. After briefly working at a big law firm, Yang joined a test-prep start-up, which was later sold and earned him “some number in the millions” that gave him enough to quit his job and launch his White House bid.
The fact that Yang is unabashedly noting his Asian ancestry makes it all the more strange that his candidacy has found fans in the alt-right, many of whom have reframed his pitch on universal basic income as a quest to save white America. White nationalist Richard Spencer has tweeted approvingly of Yang, describing him as “the most grounded presidential candidate of my lifetime.”
Yang has repeatedly disavowed the support, even as his campaign has found it difficult to eradicate the racist memes spread by some of his fringe backers in chat rooms where Yang’s campaign has tried to mobilize supporters. “I honestly don’t get it,” Yang said. “I don’t look like a white nationalist, so I am sort of surprised that anyone who’s in that camp would be like, ‘Ooh, that’s my candidate.’ ”
Indeed, Yang’s crowds are notable for their diversity. Darrin Lowery, a 51-year-old social worker from Chicago, turned out after hearing Yang make his pitch to black voters on “The Breakfast Club” radio show. His warning about the dangers of automation had hit home with Lowery.
“The Kmart is closed, the Sears is closed. All these different businesses are closing, and I wonder what these people who don’t have advanced degrees are going to do?” said Lowery, who is black. “I do think he’s a long shot, but the more people hear him, I wonder.”
Angie Shindelar, a 53-year-old math teacher from Greenfield, Iowa, came to hear Yang speak in Stuart at the behest of her children. “Everything feels like it’s about bashing Trump or reacting to Trump instead offering some vision looking forward,” Shindelar said. “He’s the first person I’ve really heard that is looking forward and has vision in a way that can maybe overcome some of that division.”
Andy Stern, a former president of the Service Employees International Union who is friendly with Yang, cautioned that Yang needs “a breakout moment.”
“I don’t think people are looking at Andrew yet and say he’s someone who can win,” said Stern, who, like Yang, is an evangelist for a universal basic income.
Yang believes his moment could be the debates, and he’s already thinking of how much time he’ll have to make an impression.
“I’ve done the math, and I’ll have approximately 12 minutes of airtime . . . 10 to 12 minutes to introduce myself to the American people,” Yang said, probably exaggerating the time any candidate onstage is likely to have. “They are going to say, ‘Who’s that person standing next to Joe Biden?’ And hundreds of thousands of people are going to go Google ‘Andrew Yang’ or ‘Asian presidential candidate’ or whatever. . . . And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Andrew Yang.’ ”