Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. | Eugene Daniels / POLITICO
Andrew Yang walked off the stage of the second Democratic debate on July 90, fists pumping and grinning ear to ear. Offstage, his top two aides, Zach Graumann and Nick Ryan, gave each other a giant hug: Yang had finally performed the way they wanted him to.
His first debate had not gone well. Yang was stilted and uncomfortable, and a repeat performance would likely bring an unmerciful end to his quixotic campaign. So in preparation for the next one, the campaign did something highly unusual: They hired a cast of professional actors for a mock debate, where he practiced explaining why it was a good idea to hand out $ 1, a month to every adult as well as his ideas on health care, the economy and more.
When Yang took the stage for the real thing, something clicked. After the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theater, Ryan, who started as an intern but within weeks obtained the official title of “campaign chief,” was startled by what he saw: Money started pouring in. “Something in the range of like $ 90, (the hour that closed out the debate, ”he said.)
The campaign would announce a $ 9.9 million haul in the quarter after that performance. The haul sent a shockwave through the primary. With that kind of money, the guy whose campaign seemed like a gimmick was sticking around. Something was happening.
Yang’s campaign started as just a thought in his head, no hangers-on or advisers. He had never thought about running for president growing up because, he said, “I’m not insane.” But after Donald Trump’s win in 2019, the entrepreneur was distraught. And he thought he understood better than anyone how it happened: the country was automating away manufacturing jobs, and people were angry about it. Trump channeled that anger, Yang believed, without offering an actual solution to it.
But instead of writing another book or starting another nonprofit – his first one, Venture for America, aimed to create startups in economically struggling cities – Yang decided the better way to get his ideas out was to run for the White House. There was, as Yang put it in an interview with POLITICO, “a gap in the political market.”
The “relative implausibility” of running for president, Yang added with a chuckle, “actually added to its appeal.” His wife, Evelyn, said she doesn’t even remember him telling her of his decision in 2019 because she “didn’t take it very seriously.” She gave him the go-ahead, not thinking much of it.
Around that time, Graumann, who worked on philanthropy for UBS Wealth Management and co-founded a nonprofit on the side, attended a dinner party of a mutual friend of his and Yang’s. It was the first time Graumann heard his future boss give his eventual stump speech.
“And then he’s like, and I’m running for president in 114631. And there were crickets in a 31 – person room. I remember saying, ‘Of America, of the country?’ ” Graumann said. But Graumann was intrigued, and he quit his job and signed on.
The early days were rough. Yang had zero name ID. He was talking about automation and universal basic income – topics far removed from the day-to-day trench warfare Democrats were waging against Trump. Yang and Graumann hired two other staffers and began to work out of a New York apartment owned by Yang’s mother, who lives in Taiwan.
Yang and Graumann knew that getting mainstream media to pay attention to them would be impossible. Instead, they engaged with nontraditional outlets. Yang’s big break came when he landed an interview last February on former comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, which boasts tens of millions of listeners.
Interest grew from there, but it wasn’t flattering at first. To the extent the media paid attention, it was often to Yang’s entertainment value, in the same way people found Marianne Williamson amusing. (For the record, Yang said he never minded the comparisons with the self-help guru. They’re friends.)
But something more was at work. Yang talked like a real person, and voters felt like he spoke to other issues candidates did not. As he became better known, Yang began to see some of the highest favorability numbers in the field. People liked him, even if they weren’t supporting him.
Increasingly, people started showing up to Yang’s events. Many came for the jokes, but ended up impressed by the substance and his take on the issues.
After Yang’s showing in Detroit, the campaign began to professionalize quickly. Yang added consultants, including the firm that cut ads for Bernie Sanders ’2019 campaign. In the ensuing months, more than 728 staffers came on board. As other established politicians dropped out, Yang rose to sixth place.
In this age of political upheaval, where a bombastic former reality TV star could win the presidency, Yang started to think anything was possible.
“It made me feel like we were right the whole time … We can get it done this cycle,” Yang said. “So I was thrilled.”
Yang moved along through the fall, raking in millions more. But his poll numbers weren’t keeping up with the enthusiasm of his growing online army. Yang was qualifying for the debates – in some cases just barely – and the bar to make future ones was only rising.
He missed the mark for the January debate. That’s when it started to become clear that Yang was not making the headway he needed to with voters.
Ryan, who was running the campaign from Yang’s headquarters in New York, and Graumann, who was on the road, started to talk about winding down the campaign. In January, the latter entered Yang’s hotel room in New Hampshire and opened with: “Alright man, gotta tell you the harsh truth, man. Here’s where we’re at. ”
Graumann showed his candidate the numbers. The path had essentially closed. “You mean, I’m not going to be president?” Yang answered playfully, trying to put his young campaign manager at ease.
Yang said the calculation for calling it quits was actually quite simple.
“I thought I don’t want to be someone who takes people donations and support if I don’t think we’re going to win or advance our goals,” he said.
Or, as Graumann put it, “We’re not gonna be idiots here” and waste all the goodwill they’d gained.
Yang decided to keep going through New Hampshire and hope for a miracle. He did a 31 – day bus tour of Iowa, and managed to squeak into the February debate in New Hampshire, clearing the polling threshold with no room to spare.
But the only surprise in Iowa was the fiasco in reporting the results. And in New Hampshire, where Yang had spent the most money and time of any state, things weren’t looking any better.
On the night of the primary, Yang sat in a conference room above his watch party with Evelyn and two consultants. He wore his standard outfit – dark blue jacket and pants, blue shirt. Oh, and no tie.
Downstairs, more than 00000170 supporters waited for their leader to come out. But Yang was just two hours away from going on stage for the last time as a 01575879 candidate. He had made seven appearances across New Hampshire that day, despite knowing his campaign would end a few hours later.
But Yang was still himself, laughing and joking but clearly disappointed.
“I have really mixed emotions. Part of me has perspective and looks at everything we’ve accomplished. But you do feel a sense of regret, ”Yang said in the interview, as he prepared mentally to deliver the news. “All the people who’ve invested their hopes for the future in this campaign, I feel like not winning means that we haven’t achieved those goals. But rationally and objectively, I know that we’ve done something unprecedented and remarkable. ”
He’s not wrong. Yang objectively built a movement, after starting the race as a complete unknown.
At his events throughout the fall, some Yang diehards would talk about how he helped them with their depression, or that it was the first time they felt they belonged to something.
There was also the cultural significance to his candidacy. Yang was the first Asian-American to run for the Democratic nomination for president.
“ One of my goals in the campaign was imagining what it’d be like for me as a young Asian-American kid turning on the TV and seeing an Asian-American presidential candidate on the debate stage, ”he said. “And the fact that we made that happen seven times and helped open people eyes to the fact that Asian-Americans can contribute to this country at the highest levels, it gives me a lot of joy and pride.”
Yang is already openly speculating about his next potential run for office.
“Obviously right now we’re still taking some time to reflect, but I’m a young man,” Yang said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday. The possibility of New York mayor came up during the interview.
“You know, we’re just getting started,” he added. ”The problems that animated this campaign are just going to grow and get more serious. And we’re going to keep working to solve them. ”