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At one point, nearly 30 men and women had entered the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. As of this week, only a dozen of them remain. Among those who have exited the contest are three sitting U.S. senators, five current or former U.S. representatives, and three governors. Among those still standing is an entrepreneur whom nobody in the political world had ever heard of until early last year: Andrew Yang, the only non-politician left in the race aside from Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge-fund manager bankrolling his own campaign.
Why has Yang succeeded where so many more-experienced Democrats failed? In a sea of candidates whose rhetoric offers only familiar, talking-point-laden jargon, Yang sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s to his advantage. He built his campaign from the bottom up, starting with no political experience or name recognition to speak of and rising from there chiefly by embracing his status as a little-known outsider.
Likely because he faced a stiff challenge in gaining any public attention at all, Yang began his campaign willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone, and he remains that way even after having outlasted half the field. His first chance in the spotlight came last February, when he joined Joe Rogan’s immensely popular podcast for a two-hour chat.
This was a preview of things to come for Yang. Embodying one of his slogans, “Not Left, Not Right, Forward,” he hasn’t shied away from granting access to conservative outlets. He did a lengthy interview on The Ben Shapiro Show last April and, later that month, gave a lengthy interview to National Review. As I noted in the resulting profile, my conversation with him gave me an immediate sense of why his campaign was already resonating with voters, especially younger ones who had never before been interested in politics:
Talking to Yang is like talking to your undergraduate economics professor in office hours as he tries to find a way to communicate with students who were too bored to pay attention the first time he explained something in class. He thinks he gets it, and he wants you to get it, too.
In other words, Yang is unconventional, and that’s the secret to his success. He talks like a person, not a politician, and he talks to voters as if they’re people, not potential votes.
Just this morning, for instance, amid the brewing spat between Senators Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), Yang tweeted, “Watching this Elizabeth – Bernie dynamic is upsetting. We have big problems to solve and both want to solve them. I’m sure that’s where they would want our attention focused too.”
While other Democratic campaigns likely would be paralyzed with indecision at the sight of two front-runners dragging each other into the mud — either remaining cautiously silent or gaming out a detailed strategy for a precisely worded, carefully evasive comment that might redound to the benefit of their own polling numbers — Yang just says what he thinks.
The core of his platform, the “Freedom Dividend” — a universal basic income of $1,000 per month for every American adult — is an excellent example of how Yang’s routine willingness to flout customary political tactics has contributed to his rise. When Yang announced during the September debate that his campaign would give away $1,000 per month for a year to ten American families, he was met with audible laughter from several contenders on stage, including California senator Kamala Harris. Four months later, Harris is out of the race, and Yang is still standing.
Yang’s ability to come across as less programmed than his opponents is apparent in nearly everything he does. Last month, for instance, he announced that anyone who donated any amount to his campaign would be entered for a chance to win a trip to Los Angeles to see the newest Star Wars movie with Yang after the debate. “Yes I am that candidate,” he acknowledged in the tweet, followed by a smiley face and a thumbs-up emoji.
What I wrote in my profile of Yang last April is still true: He won’t be the Democratic nominee. But several of the things he told me at the time have been proven true as well:
“Most Americans are still going to be finding out about me when they watch these debates,” he goes on. “They’re going to see me. They’re going to Google me. They’ll be like, ‘Who’s that guy?’” He pauses to chuckle at his own comment. “Then the more people dig into my vision for the country, the better I’m going to do.”
Given that he’s managed to stick around longer than many veteran politicians whose campaigns were boosted by constant media acclaim, it seems that Yang was right.