MANCHESTER, N.H. — Andrew Yang walked on stage for the McKinley-Shaheen Democratic Party dinner Saturday to rowdy applause. It wasn’t just the Yang Gang whose hoots and hollers filled the arena — they were joined by supporters of every other candidate.
The scene captured the conundrum of Yang’s candidacy: People like the guy, even if they support someone else. That's why Yang finds himself heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary sixth in the polls, having just fired dozens of staffers, and looking for a rationale to hang on.
The candidate and his campaign seemed intent to block out those troubles as Yang raced across the state over the weekend in search of votes. Yang hasn't said how long he'll remain in the race if he repeats his sixth-place Iowa performance. According to a report in Rolling Stone last week, he mused recently to staffers about running again in 2024, particularly if he does well on Tuesday.
"We're not going anywhere. The Yang Gang is not going anywhere, and we're just going to keep pushing until we accomplish our goals," Yang told reporters Sunday.
Yang has bet big on New Hampshire, visiting 26 times and doing 132 events, based on his campaign’s tally. He has spent more than $3.5 million on TV ads here, according to Advertising Analytics.
And he has a history in the state, reminding voters at every stop that he attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy. “I didn’t really enjoy my time” at the exclusive boarding school, Yang jokes, a one-liner that crowds eat up.
New Hampshire has a reputation of rejecting Iowa’s choice in favor of an underdog, as if voters just want to keep things interesting: Bernie Sanders in 2016, Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008, and McCain in 2000.
“When there's a really interesting new voice, we like to give every opportunity to give that voice a chance for the rest of the country to hear,” said Steve Marchand, a senior adviser to Yang, who was the former mayor of Portsmouth, N.H.
But Yang, despite his work here, has failed to gain the kind of traction that other long-shot candidates like Amy Klobuchar, who is surging in the final days of the race, have.
The final count in Iowa was terrible for Yang, and New Hampshire is not looking much better. Days before the primary, some advisers speak as if the campaign is just ramping up. Marchand, a New Hampshire native, said the campaign just needs to get Yang in front of as many people as possible, and holds out hope in the fact that many voters are just now making up their minds.
"The job is when they get a chance to meet Andrew, can we move Andrew from on [their] list to the top of the list?” he said.
Speeding through the back streets of New Hampshire in a Ford Expedition, Yang, whom few people had even heard of nine months ago, seems unbothered by his predicament. He and his staff recognize how daunting their odds are, but after beating out a host of senators, governors and congressmen there's a hopefulness that doesn’t feel phony.
The campaign is leaning into New Hampshire’s semi-open primary and working to pull support from independents and libertarians who are open to his out-of-the box ideas.
“He's not ideological. He's really running to solve the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place,” Yang’s campaign manager Zach Graumann said. “So talking about it that way instead of ‘Donald Trump [is] bad,’ appeals to a lot of people that don't identify with a particular party.”
At the center of that push for independents and libertarians is his universal basic income plan. Yang's stump references Milton Friedman, the legendary libertarian economist who endorsed a form of UBI in the 1960s.
The plan is part bigger government and part get government out of the way and let people choose how to spend their money.
But Jesse Benton, campaign chair of libertarian Ron Paul's 2012 campaign, said Yang's idea won't fly with most “true” libertarians. Paul surprised with a second-place finish in the 2012 New Hampshire primary.
“I definitely understand where [Yang's] coming from: Wouldn't it be cool if there were a way we could ensure that an entrepreneur could feel a little safer starting a business or an artist [could] take a sabbatical to focus on their art or their music?" Benton said in an interview. But "I have trouble seeing how any kind of broad swath of libertarians are going to find [UBI] very appealing.”
But the Yang campaign is undeterred. Graumann says the lack of bureaucracy in the proposal (everyone would get the money when they turn 18) is their biggest selling point.
Claire Mei, who saw Yang in Littleton, N.H. on Sunday night, was buying it. She’s a liberterian who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and said Yang won her over.
UBI "doesn't tell people how to control their lives. It gives them the money and ... the freedom of choice to do what they want with it,” Mei said while waiting in the Yang selfie line.
Independents like Phil Harrell said he was “Yang-curious” when he arrived at the Claremont Opera House to see him on Sunday.
"He says what's on his mind and speaks plainly and I really like that and he has new and fresh ideas," Harrell said, adding that he hasn’t committed to voting for Yang or anyone else but that the entrepreneur has moved up to No. 2 on his list.
Yang is his own best salesman, and people often come away after seeing him surprised by how much they like him. But is it enough to give him any momentum after New Hampshire?
“I guess the answer is we’ll find out on Tuesday,” Graumann said with a laugh.