Andrew Yang’s campaign says over 450,000 people have entered debate contest

By Alex Thompson

Andrew Yang’s surprising debate gambit — giving away $120,000 to 10 families over a year to highlight his universal basic income proposal — helped the outsider candidate raise $1 million in the 72 hours since the debate and collect more than 450,000 email addresses from people who entered the online raffle, the presidential campaign told POLITICO.

The campaign said that over 90 percent of the email addresses are new, a huge expansion of the candidate's email list. He also gained more Twitter followers over the course of the debate than any other candidate.

While some rivals on the debate stage laughed and rolled their eyes at the ploy, Yang’s campaign sees the “Freedom Dividend Pilot Program” as an example of why their internet-first campaign has pushed them to sixth place in the crowded contest.

“We’ve got a 21st century candidate and we’re running a 21st century campaign,” Campaign Manager Zach Graumann said. “That’s something not many of our competitors can say.”

The $1 million in post-debate fundraising is over a third of the $2.8 million Yang raised in the last quarter, suggesting the 44-year-old entrepreneur is on track to raise significantly more in the third quarter that ends this month.

Yang framed the cash giveaway, which ends at 11:59pm ET Thursday night, in populist terms — that it was better to spend the campaign money giving it back to the people rather than spend it on TV ads and political consultants.

“When you donate money to a presidential campaign, what happens?” Yang asked in his opening statement at Thursday night’s debate. “The politician spends the money on TV ads and consultants and you hope it works out. It’s time to trust ourselves more than our politicians.”

The campaign’s online raffle has met with deep skepticism from campaign finance experts, but they acknowledge that the Federal Election Commission is unlikely to stop him given that it currently does not have a quorum.

“This campaign stunt is of dubious legality, at best,” said Brendan Fischer, the federal reform legal director at the Campaign Legal Center. “Handing campaign funds to supporters comes awfully close to violating the personal use prohibition. But Yang seems to be going ahead because he knows that the paralyzed FEC can’t tell him ‘no.’”

"The campaign tactic raises numerous novel legal questions," said Paul Ryan, Vice President of Policy and Litigation at Common Cause. "If only we had a quorum at the FEC, so the Commission could provide guidance on this cutting-edge, novel use of campaign funds!"

The Yang campaign said they “consulted extensively with our counsel” before last Thursday’s announcement. “These expenditures are made to further the goals of the campaign by demonstrating the transformative power of Andrew's flagship proposal,” the campaign said in a statement. “Since these payments would not be made irrespective of the campaign, they comply with all campaign finance laws.”

Yang also responded to legality questions on Sunday to CNN. “If I gave a million dollars to media company or consultants or hired like a small army of canvassers no one would blink an eye, but if we give the money directly to the American people somehow that's problematic,” he said. “So, it just speaks to how messed up our system is where giving money directly to Americans actually raises eyebrows.”