Is Andrew Yang ready for prime time?

Image: Andrew Yang has seen a slow and steady tick upward in his polling an
Andrew Yang has seen a slow and steady tick upward in his polling and fundraising -- and the Yang Gang is with him all the way. Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News; Getty Images
Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News; Getty Images
By Allan Smith and Lauren Egan and Micki Fahner and Gary Grumbach with NBC News Politics
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"The crowds are bigger. The energy is higher," Yang told NBC News. "The questions are more about what you would do as president."


Gene Bishop said his father, a life-long Republican, is "turning over in his grave right now" over his steadfast support of a Democratic presidential candidate. Diane Kendall, herself a longtime Republican, said she's "never been so excited" for a candidate as she is now for a Democrat.

Bishop, 81, a New Hampshire retiree, and Kendall, 54, a New Hampshire administrator, have fallen for the same contender — Andrew Yang. An entrepreneur and son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang, 44, began his presidential campaign in 2017 to little fanfare but made a name for himself by promising to give every American adult $1,000 a month.

"He's an intellectual," Bishop told NBC News. "He's not a politician. He has fantastic insight into how to solve today and tomorrow's problems. He's the best out there to me, hands down."

Yang is one of the top six polling candidates in the Democratic primary field heading into Thursday's ABC debate, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg South Bend, Indiana.

One of the lesser-known candidates, Yang still faces long odds. His fortunes changed drastically over the past few months, though. He began the year being left out of some Democratic primary polls and is now regularly polling ahead of sitting senators, congressman and governors.

"The crowds are bigger. The energy is higher," Yang told NBC News in a recent interview over Twitter. "The questions are more about what you would do as president. The growth makes everything on the trail feel more vital and exuberant. These recent days have been the best yet, and we are continuing to grow."

Yang has locked himself into not only Thursday's debate, but October's as well, after meeting both polling and fundraising requirements. While Yang only narrowly leads former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, his candidacy has outpaced both of theirs. O'Rourke entered the race with much fanfare, only to see his numbers evaporate, and Booker has struggled to take off.

Though he opposes President Donald Trump, Yang credits the president for tapping into the economic insecurity that ripples through the country. Yang's worldview can be described as dystopian, one in which the country is past the point of no return on issues like climate change and automation. This darker view calls for dealing with the issues existing in this dystopia rather than offering policies in hope of averting them.

Yang has cultivated a rabid online fan base and his events are flooded with supporters clad in "MATH" hats and signs (standing for "Make America Think Harder.") He cracks jokes both to his online following through his ever-frequent tweeting and at his events. This is a candidate who went viral this week for crowdsurfing, and last month for doing the Cupid Shuffle.

"I think things like Andrew Yang not wearing a tie to the debate had some people start noticing him. I think when he talks like a real person, he gets people to notice him," Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist, told NBC News. "Especially when he's on the stage with nine other politicians and he talks in real people terms, I think that resonates with folks."

For Yang, the question now isn't how he can keep the likes of O'Rourke and Booker at bay. It's how he can undertake the much more monumental task of breaking into the seemingly unmovable upper-ranks of the primary race. And if he's willing to adapt or make changes needed to do so.

Katz said to keep progressing in the field, where he currently trails Buttigieg and Harris by a handful of percentage points, Yang "needs to keep creating moments that separate him from the field."

"Andrew Yang's challenge is to do things that make him seem reasonable without seeming like a politician," she said. "And that's how he gets noticed."

Steve Marchand, a senior adviser to the Yang campaign, said he's seen Yang grow into his candidacy as the primary contest has dragged along. Every day is a lesson for someone who has never run for public office before, Marchand added, pointing to Yang's improvement from the June debate to his July effort, which the campaign credits with a boost in enthusiasm and support. As Yang told NBC News, "I've learned a lot" on the trail.

"I've found that the more I lean into what makes me human, the more people respond," he said. "This campaign has been on some level an exploration of my own humanity."

As one New Hampshire supporter, Sam Hayden, told NBC News last month, seeing how Yang "interacts with crowds and how genuine he seems to be as an individual has absolutely motivated me to come out and support as much as I can."

Marchand said that observers can expect to see the campaign mature more in the months ahead. Though Yang gained notice for posting dozens upon dozens of obscure policies on his website in the early stages of his campaign, his most recent policy roll-out⁠ was more traditional. Last month, Yang presented his climate plan in front of a picturesque, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, background with media and supporters present.

"It was the first time that we had rolled out a plan on a policy point like that," Marchand said, adding, "What you're going to find in the weeks to come is that we're going to be consolidating some of these ideas, some of these policies that are thematically similar: economics, health care, education, climate, and so forth, foreign policy, and consolidating them and expanding upon them so as to make them more thematically pure."


"So, that will look different, but it'll be deeper, and will probably be more cohesive in terms of how all these policies fits together," he continued.

Yang and his followers frequently lament the lack of media attention his candidacy has received with the candidate often highlighting cable news packages involving the Democratic primary field that exclude him.

But with more media attention comes a higher level of scrutiny — both of his ideas and his business background. As a curiosity candidate, Yang "didn't face much scrutiny," Katz said. But, she said, that's about to change.

"He could just kind of skate around on the edges," she said. "But now, he's making it onto the big debate stage. He's making it over many more qualified elected officials. And now it's his time to answer some of the hard questions."

With regard to Yang's career before politics, reports have highlighted how the nonprofit Yang founded and led for much of the past decade has fallen short of its goals. Within the past month, Yang also faced scrutiny over paid speeches he made while a presidential candidate.


Yang's plan to provide a universal basic income, which he would pay for by creating what amounts to a tax on the gains of automation, has received a healthy dose of skepticism. And the environmental group Greenpeace gave his climate change platform, which includes a section titled "Move to Higher Ground," the lowest score of the 13 candidates it graded.

"They just need to flesh out his issues more," Katz said. "I think, from what I can tell, his position on climate is terrible. We're all going to die, so let's move to higher land. I think some of these ideas that might have gotten a laugh, or gotten folks a little bit intrigued, will now get some tougher pushback."

Yang says he's prepared for pushback.

"I ran a nonprofit for seven years that helped create thousands of jobs and had to file its numbers every year," he said. "I live a pretty boring life. I would be thrilled for more attention to be paid to my ideas because people would see how positive an impact they would have on our day-to-day lives. That is the point of this campaign."

His supporters are even more sure.


"He can take it," Jay Delarosa, 22, a student from New York City, told NBC News. "Bring it on. We would love it. He is bulletproof. You can't stump the guy."

Yang's appearance in Thursday's third debate is his best opportunity yet to break through as for the first time, he shares a stage with each of the candidates he is trying to chase down. Yang called it "a great opportunity to give more Americans a sense of my campaign and how we can improve our own lives."

"It's also a great chance to convey a sense of how I compare to the top contenders since we will all be on stage," he added. "I think that my vision for the country compares favorably to that of other candidates."

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