Andrew Yang’s Quest to ‘Make America Think Harder’

PLAISTOW, N.H. — Meet Andrew Yang supporters and they often have a confession to make: When they first heard about Mr. Yang, they thought his plan to give every American adult $1,000 a month was a little crazy. But then, they will inevitably tell you, they heard him explain it, and it all started making sense.

“He was a meme — his campaign was a joke,” said Ben Longchamp, 20, a college student from Atkinson, N.H., who first saw Mr. Yang speak in May, at a restaurant in Portsmouth. “I’ve seen 14 candidates at this point, and what I like about him is he has this one policy proposal and he has the data to back it up.”

Shannon Jeanes, 44, a construction worker from Bedford, N.H., said he was drawn to Mr. Yang because he seemed to care about ideas like a $1,000 “universal basic income” more than personal ambition. “He’s not running because he wants to be president,” Mr. Jeanes said. “He’s running because he feels he needs to be.”

One of the most surprising developments of the 2020 presidential race has been the intensely loyal and passionate following for Mr. Yang, a former entrepreneur and tech executive making a bid for the Democratic nomination. Armed with numbers, history lessons and the occasional self-deprecating joke, he has been preaching a grim gospel about how automation will lead to mass unemployment and how corporate profits are warping the economy. Enough Americans have started to take him seriously that Mr. Yang has emerged as the surprise qualifier for a slimmed-down third Democratic debate, which will be held on Thursday in Houston.

Mr. Yang, 44, remains one of the least known candidates in a group that includes senators, mayors, a governor and a former vice president. He is far from the only one with policy chops. And he is, as ever, a long shot for the nomination, as evidenced by the fact that he is still polling in the low single digits.

But voters who attended his campaign events during a swing through New Hampshire last month rarely described him as a futurist fringe-candidate pitching a pie-in-the-sky plan. Instead, many said they had come to regard him as a smart, substantive and affable political outsider offering a thoughtful solution to an existential problem that other candidates have largely ignored.

More broadly, Mr. Yang’s supporters said they found his almost apolitical approach refreshing. Rather than participate in daily brinkmanship over immigration and gun control or level attacks on President Trump, Mr. Yang has used his platform to gently lecture the country about the “fourth industrial revolution” — which he fears will put truck drivers, call-center workers and retail clerks out of work — and to offer universal basic income as a way to soothe the pain he says such a revolution will assuredly cause.

Mr. Yang has attracted an ideologically eclectic coalition that includes progressives, libertarians, disaffected voters and Trump supporters who have swapped their red MAGA hats for blue ones that say MATH — “Make America Think Harder.” Those who have come into his camp say his presence on YouTube, on podcasts and in the nationally televised debates helped them begin to see the logic behind giving people free money.

His performance in Houston could be crucial to sustaining his campaign’s newfound momentum. In the days immediately after the July debates, Mr. Yang’s campaign raked in about $1 million — more than a third of what his team had raised during the entirety of the second quarter. About 90 percent of the people who gave were new donors.

The campaign is now on track to raise more than $5.5 million in the third quarter of the year, according to Yang advisers — more than the total amount Mr. Yang had raised during the previous 20 months that he spent as a candidate. While his operation does not rival the size or scale of his more established rivals’ campaigns, his team has ballooned to over 50 staff members from around 10 initially, as new offices have opened in Nashua and Portsmouth, N.H., and Des Moines and Davenport, Iowa. At the New York headquarters, the campaign has leased additional office space and is building an in-house digital team.

Data compiled by RealClearPolitics shows that Mr. Yang is drawing about 2.6 percent support in national polls on average, good enough for sixth place, behind Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and just ahead of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

More and more, Mr. Yang and his advisers have allowed themselves to flirt openly with the idea that they have achieved something that long eluded them: mainstream recognition.

“I’ve been coming to New Hampshire every month for the last year-plus,” Mr. Yang, standing atop a soapbox, told a room packed with supporters at the christening of the Nashua office. “When I first showed up, honestly no one knew who I was. The growth from then to now — it’s staggering.”

Indeed, as recently as May, Mr. Yang strutted into a park in Lebanon, N.H., to find only a few dozen voters waiting to meet him. Back then, those who showed up conveyed more curiosity than commitment.

Three months later, the situation had changed. Mr. Yang would ask his audience questions — Which state has passed universal basic income? — and a chorus of supporters would yell back the answer on cue: “Alaska!”

At his events in New Hampshire, those fans tended to skew largely white, slightly male and very young. Many of them were in college or had just graduated; a noticeable share described themselves as liking both Mr. Yang and Mr. Trump.

Still others leaned libertarian and praised Mr. Yang for his plan to give people money and then get out of the way. Some professed to be former supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, saying that they saw in Mr. Yang a newer, fresher champion of progressive causes who was advancing ideas that might prove to be ahead of their time.

Mr. Yang’s big-city rallies can draw thousands and tend to attract more diverse crowds, including an unusually high share of Asian-Americans.

On the trail, Mr. Yang, like many of his rivals, likes to paint his campaign as one powered primarily by grass-roots enthusiasm and modest donations. An analysis by The New York Times bore that out, finding that about 70 percent of donations he received in the second quarter of the year came from people giving $200 or less.

A separate analysis of Mr. Yang’s approximately 133,000 total donors through June 30 showed that the average contribution to his campaign was about $27. Because approximately 20 percent of his donors gave multiple times, the average amount received from each person was about $40.

The donor data also reinforced a demographic trend apparent at Mr. Yang’s campaign events: Less than 30 percent of his donors were women, according to estimates by and The Times.

The crowds at Mr. Yang’s New Hampshire meet-and-greets also noticeably lacked older voters. Some who did attend said they wanted to hear Mr. Yang out, even though they professed to preferring someone who had logged more experience working in Washington.

Ann Engelkemeir, 67, of Epsom, N.H., said she was leaning toward voting for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. But she and others said they found Mr. Yang personable and acknowledged that a core part of his appeal was that he was not a career politician.

“Some of the candidates, when they’re asked a question, they give the response they’ve practiced that is closest to the question,” Ms. Engelkemeir said at one event. “I do think he answers questions much more directly than I’ve heard.”

During that event, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, Mr. Yang found himself in front of an audience full of voters who, like Ms. Engelkemeir, were largely unfamiliar with him.

He ticked off a comedic and at times ungenerous retelling of his back story: unhappy corporate lawyer; founder of a business that experienced a “mini rise and maximum fall”; and eventually the leader of a test-preparation company that was bought by Kaplan in 2009.

Mr. Yang told The Washington Post Magazine this year that he “became a millionaire” after he sold the company, but stipulated that “my net worth is probably much lower than speculation would lead one to believe.” In financial disclosure forms filed this summer, Mr. Yang reported assets worth as much as $2.4 million, putting him on par with many other candidates in the race.

Amid the recession, Mr. Yang moved on to develop Venture for America, a nonprofit entrepreneurship organization for college graduates that created jobs in underserved cities.

When Mr. Trump was elected president in 2016, Mr. Yang says he started digging into data to try to understand why, and he found that millions of manufacturing jobs had been wiped out in swing states because of automation. It dawned on him that his good-faith effort to create jobs was wildly insufficient. A more sweeping solution was necessary: $1,000 a month for every American.

“Universal basic income is an amazingly hard policy to demonize,” said Matt Clark, 36, a college adviser from Massachusetts who supports the idea and believes Republicans will get behind it. “It’s super simple and it directly addresses so many Americans.”

Mr. Yang’s fixation on enriching the masses, along with his history as an entrepreneur, has made his personal wealth a popular Google search. As Mr. Yang’s campaign has gained relevance, his sources of income have come under increasing scrutiny.

Mr. Yang’s financial disclosure forms show that he received a total of $94,000 for 10 speeches he gave between April 2018 and February 2019; five of the paid speeches were to JPMorgan Chase at a rate of $10,000 each. They also show that Mr. Yang draws tens of thousands of dollars in income from interest and capital gains on his investments as well as rent for a home he owns in New Paltz, N.Y.

A spokesman for Mr. Yang said the candidate would release his tax returns in the coming days. He declined to disclose Mr. Yang’s net worth or comment on his paid speeches.

Although Mr. Yang has been reluctant to discuss his wealth, he has been candid about other aspects of his personal life. Some voters said they were particularly struck by the humanity they saw come through when Mr. Yang spoke about his son who has autism and his wife’s dedication as a stay-at-home mother while he has been out on the trail.

(Mr. Yang also drew attention when he recently broke down in tears at a forum on gun violence in Iowa after a mother shared that her child had been killed by a stray bullet.)

Matthew Martin, 35, a gardener from Salem, Mass., is among those who said he was touched by Mr. Yang’s empathy. Both of Mr. Martin’s parents were factory workers who lost their jobs several times, so when he first heard Mr. Yang give his pitch on a podcast, he felt drawn to his message.

Now, more than a year after Mr. Martin first learned about Mr. Yang, he was standing inside his new office in Nashua. As Mr. Yang signed MATH hats and took selfies a few steps away, Mr. Martin mused about how the campaign had grown and why he had traveled to be a part of it.

“It’s very hard at first to get people on board with Andrew Yang,” he said. “But after they listen, it can be transformative.”

Rachel Shorey and Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.

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