BOONE, Iowa — Andrew Yang has pitched himself as the only Democratic candidate who can unite people from across the political spectrum to join his campaign or to vote for a Democrat for the first time. But the ideological diversity of Yang’s supporters could have unpredictable consequences on the night of the Iowa caucus.
Voters confess to Yang that they voted for Trump in the last election or that they’re a former Republican and had only registered as a Democrat to vote for him. In interviews with over a dozen Yang supporters across Iowa in the final days before Monday’s caucuses, it was clear that Yang supporters’ wide range of political ideologies has made it hard for them to coalesce behind a particular candidate who they’d support during a realignment vote if Yang doesn’t reach the viability threshold — 15% on the first round — or if they’d even continue voting for a Democrat in the caucus and in the general election at all.
Dena, 39, and Chris Hilpipre, 42 — a married couple from Mitchellville — are committed to Yang as their first choice. Chris got his introduction to Yang through Joe Rogan's podcast, and "I liked what he was talking about so much. It just made sense to me."
"He’s not a politician, he’s a normal person like us," said Dena, a purchasing buyer. Chris, a programmer for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said Yang's "argument for what AI is doing to society really spoke to me and made a lot of sense."
If Yang doesn't meet the threshold at their caucus site, however, they're not decided on what to do. "There’s a big potential for us not to move anywhere," Chris said. "It’s just really something I’d have to feel on the night I think. There’s other candidates I like."
"There’s nobody that really compares" to Yang, Dena said. Though Chris likes Bernie Sanders, he doesn't think his plans are "viable," and said he probably wouldn't move to Sanders during the caucus process and doesn't expect him to be viable at their caucus site.
Yang has hinted that his supporters might gravitate toward the Sanders campaign, telling a Bloomberg News roundtable last week “there’s a lot of overlap in support.” But he admitted on Sunday that he did not know where his supporters would end up.
“We have a very, very diverse group of supporters. I can’t speak for where they would head,” Yang said on ABC’s This Week. “I do have a sense that many of them have supported Bernie in the past, but many of them supported President Trump and they might just leave.” Yang added that his campaign doesn’t currently have plans to direct his supporters to support a particular candidate during a realignment vote.
That he is drawing so many different kinds of supporters is key to his electability pitch. “What’s the number one criteria Democrats are looking for in a nominee? To beat Trump,” Yang told the audience at a town hall in Boone. “People who are betting cash on this have me as the heaviest favorite to beat Donald Trump. The next best candidate is even money.”
“I’m going to throw a couple of facts out for you,” Yang added. “One survey said 18% of college Republicans would choose me over the president. Another poll said that 10% of Trump voters in the state of New Hampshire would choose me over the president.”
During a packed town hall at a Mexican restaurant, a student told Yang that he’d never donated to a Democrat before and asked if he could give him the $35 in his pocket — Yang told him to find someone to caucus instead. At his final Iowa rally in Des Moines, Yang asked supporters who’d voted for Trump in 2016 to raise their hands. Over a dozen hands shot up before he asked the audience to give them a round of applause.
In the latest poll from Monmouth University, Yang had support from 3% of likely caucus goers in Iowa and 4% of those Iowans indicated that he’d be their second choice.
Two sisters from West Des Moines, Natalie Jensen, 23, and Gloria Jensen, 26, both decked out in Yang merch, attended Yang’s Saturday night rally in Des Moines together; they had become Yang fans around last October. Both were firm that they were going on Monday to caucus for Yang. But they had differing perspectives on what they would do if Yang didn't cross the threshold to stay viable during the caucus. "My plan is to go gung ho on Yang and If I have to snag some Tulsis or whoever I possibly can to make Yang viable — and then I haven’t decided if I’m just gonna leave or not after that," Natalie Jensen said.
"As of right now for me, I would go to Sanders, but I’m gonna look more tomorrow at both Warren and Sanders' policies just to make up my mind," Gloria Jensen said.
“His message is really about humanity and moving the country forward and uniting the country,” Paige Bortman, a 26-year-old independent voter who leans Republican, told BuzzFeed News. “I was considering supporting Trump in 2016, but I ended up not voting. If Yang doesn’t reach viability at my caucus, then I’m probably just going to go home.”
She added that none of the other Democratic candidates have been able to catch her interest.
“I was a Republican. and I switched my registration to caucus just for Andrew,” said Christy Thede, a voter from central Iowa. “I’m not planning on caucusing for anyone else on Monday if he doesn’t reach viability and if he doesn’t get the nominee then I’m voting for Trump.”
Dave Waters, from Boone, said he’s read every candidates’ book and seen every one of them in person and that he’s committed to caucusing for Yang as his first choice.
“It’s very likely in my precinct,” Waters said about Yang not reaching the viability threshold. He added that he and his wife have been weighing the pros and cons of each candidate and have been wavering between supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg during their realignment vote. “I’m not planning on caucusing for Bernie at all, but if he got the nomination, I’d gladly vote for him.”
Sanders organizers on college campuses like Iowa State University said they’ve been having conversations with Yang supporters about Sanders' policies and asking them if they’d be open to supporting Sanders if he doesn’t reach the viability threshold. After a Yang event in Boone, a college student decked in Bernie gear who’d flown in from Kansas to volunteer for Sanders told BuzzFeed News she’d been independently talking to Yang supporters about supporting Sanders as a second choice.
If there is a plan for Yang to push his supporters toward a particular candidate, it may be a hard sell for the voters and precinct captains who’ve settled on caucusing for him.
Two Yang precinct captains stood near each other after Yang’s final rally in Des Moines. Both were from outside Iowa; Christina Lee Shane had driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, to volunteer, and Emilio Medina, holding a large Yang flag, had left Minnesota to be in Davenport, Iowa for a month volunteering. They were both serving as precinct captains in Muscatine. They didn't directly answer when asked what their instructions had been from the campaign in terms of guiding their caucus-goers in case Yang didn't meet the threshold. "We’re all in various different trainings and caucus trainings and we have strategies of course, but..." Shane said, trailing off.
"I’m not at liberty to say, but I would just say that the Yang campaign has a brilliant and genius revolutionary strategy that we’re going to be working on," Medina said.
Another precinct captain, Rafael C. (who declined to provide his last name), who had left his home in Miami to come to Iowa and pitch in with the Yang campaign, said, "One of the funniest things about the Yang Gang is you can ask five different people what their second choice is and all five of them will give you different answers. You can get Bernie, you can get Trump, you can get Amy Klobuchar, you can get Biden."
"I don’t think he’s going to be unviable in most precincts. I think we’re in a very good position, but in the case that he’s unviable, I think it’s very unpredictable," he said.