“I tweeted a while ago that this is the simulation where we win — and that’s what it feels like now,” Andrew Yang told me between campaign stops in New Hampshire Thursday night.
He was speaking — as he does in media interviews — with careful space between words, thinking about how they’ll look when they’re written down.
Yang’s stunning fundraising figures Thursday — $16.5 million in the last three months of 2019 — are the latest of the boxes he’s checked to indicate that, yes, he’s a serious candidate for president of the United States. That’s not the only box: He regularly occupies the second tier of key polls, behind the four central candidates, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, but ahead of any number of well-credentialed politicians, quirky microcelebrities, and well-funded randos — numbers that indicate support beyond the #YangGang faithful. Now he’s spending real money on television in Iowa.
“I get asked all the time whether I expected to be here,” he said. “And the truth is that I did.”
But Yang is also worth treating as more than a curiosity because he has a grip on the thing that actually wins presidential campaigns: a clear message about the future.
“He’s talking about 21st-century challenges rather than reprising old battles,” David Axelrod, who shaped Obama’s 2008 campaign, told me.
The substance of Yang’s campaign is shockingly easy to talk about. He wants to give everyone $1,000, and instead of preaching the inherent dignity of work, he looks to an automated future where there’s dignity in working less. He marches to his own policy drum and declined to sign on to all the primary’s progressive litmus tests, saying that while he agrees in “spirit” with Medicare for All, free college, and the Green New Deal, none would work out in practice.
It’s the politics that have been harder to figure, and they’re the reason that experienced political reporters (like me) have tended to write him off. As in: Come on, how does he actually win this thing?
Well, first, the Democratic National Committee’s rigid rules have, so far, been a gift to him. Yang and Sanders had no trouble reaching the numbers of small donors required to clear the threshold for debates, which meant they can spend the money they’ve raised on advertising and persuasion. Many of the other candidates — and particularly the ones who washed out — have been spending money to drum up donors, dropping $10 or $20 to raise $1. (The DNC’s arbitrary polling rules, however, could keep him out of a key Iowa debate this month.)
And his campaign has brought on some old-line political hacks who speak the language of conventional politics. In terms insiders can understand, here’s the path: Yang has now raised enough money to buy old-school television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire (though his main ad is personal and unconventional). In his ad maker Mark Longabaugh’s gambling metaphor, “We’ve got to be dealt into the race in the early contests, Iowa and New Hampshire.”
That means a finish that sneaks him in amongst the four frontrunners in Iowa; then a stronger showing in New Hampshire, where independents and even Republican-leaning independents, who like Yang better than other Democrats, can vote in the semi-open primary. Then it’s off to the races.
“One of the key things is getting hot at the right time,” said Longabaugh, who worked with Sanders in 2016. “Yang is positioned to get hot right at the right time to make a move on this thing.”
“We’re going to grow and grow and peak at the right time,” said Yang who, like Trump, ignores the old rule that the candidate shouldn’t obsess publicly about polling.
That would mean, among other things, winning votes from people who aren’t wearing hats that say MATH on them. (Perhaps from the woman spotted at a Warren event Thursday, wearing one backward.)
Yang’s aides say the base is broadening.
“It’s a completely new universe that we are speaking to,” said his campaign chief, a former combat commander and political neophyte named Nick Ryan, who pointed to some 400,000 individual donors. “No matter how passionate a small base of support is — they’re not going to get you $16 million. These are folks who aren’t all on blue-hat twitter.”
The only thing missing, as Yang’s aggrieved supporters frequently note, is MSNBC, which keeps leaving him off its graphics — and, really, the rest of us, the media at large. That’s because he’s not the kind of establishment candidate — with political, business, or military credentials — who fits easily into the establishment media narratives, and he hasn’t (hadn’t) had a clear story to tell about how he wins the horserace. And he’s not the kind of outsider — that is, the passionate socialist (admittedly one with political credentials) — whom movement outlets like the Intercept and the Nation stan.
At this point, that will probably change: The great mentioner will add him to the MSNBC charts, unleash the attacks from the left, etc. It’s a change that could easily end his rise.
“In this process, the most joyful ride is the one up the ladder,” said Axelrod. “Once you arrive in the tier of viable contenders, the tests get much harder. We just don’t know yet how well he would handle that unique hazing. He’s made a huge leap to get to where he is. It is an even larger one to get to where he wants to go.”
Yang, for his part, makes the case that the lack of formal attention has made him stronger.
“The media has not exactly been the fuel behind my ascent,” he remarked dryly. That means, he said, that “the people who support me have a sense of who I am.”
So what will become of Andrew Yang? Probably, like most candidates who have a shot — but just a shot — he’ll fall short. But he’s got a shot. One of his senior aides argues that Biden, Warren, and Sanders “are running like it’s 1996.” Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, the aide said, “are running like it’s 2008. We’re running like it’s 2030.”
Only Donald Trump, it seems, is running like the year is 2020. “I am,” Yang told me, “his perfect nemesis.”