WASHINGTON — Steve Marchand’s friends were stunned when he told them about his new job in politics. “I love you, Steve, and trust your judgment,” the New Hampshire Democratic insider and in-demand campaign operative recalls them saying, “but Andrew Yang?”
It was the spring of 2019, and Andrew Yang was known — if he was known at all — as the quirky, tech-centric long-shot presidential candidate who never wore a tie and wanted to give every American adult free money. Or something like that. He was a novelty, the next iteration of Herman Cain, an entertaining sideshow in an otherwise solemn field of Democratic contenders.
Today, it’s no longer possible to dismiss Yang so easily. In the six months since Marchand came onboard, Yang has outpolled senators and House members in the race, raised substantial funds, and cultivated a fanatical online following that calls itself the Yang Gang. Nowadays, Marchand says, his biggest headache in running Yang’s New Hampshire operation is finding enough qualified people fast enough to build an operation that can compete with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. When he and I spoke last month, Marchand told me his team numbered in the single digits. It had doubled by the following week. He now tells Rolling Stone that the campaign is expecting to surpass 75 full-time staff in New Hampshire by the end of the month.
On Wednesday, his campaign announced it had raised $10 million in the previous three months. For perspective, Yang’s third-quarter haul is $4 million more than Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), $8 million more than Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and only $1.6 million shy of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Still, Yang is polling well behind Warren, Sanders, and Joe Biden. If not a miracle, he needs a dramatic realignment inside the Democratic Party to win the nomination.
In order to do so, Yang and his team must translate his viral support into a real campaign — without losing what makes Yang Yang. That means on-the-ground organizing in early primary and caucus states, a strategy for the crucial but unglamorous work of winning delegates in as many states as possible, and a plan for turning Yang into a household name. All while preserving the candidate’s unscripted and refreshingly unpolitical style.
“The fact that he’s so different resonates,” says Rebecca Katz, a progressive political consultant who worked for Sen. Harry Reid and advised Bill de Blasio’s 2013 New York mayoral run. “The candidates doing the best are the ones who are authentic. There is a case to be made that Andrew Yang could be one of the last people standing out of a field of 25 candidates.”
Over the past month, half a dozen of Yang’s senior staffers told Rolling Stone about their plan to build what is essentially Yang 2.0 and not wind up as the next Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich: fringe candidates with small but loyal followings who could never break into the mainstream. “In my office, there’s one poster on the wall: It’s the primary and caucus calendar, and then all the way into November of 2020,” says Nick Ryan, Yang’s campaign chief. “This is a candidate and campaign that are built to last.”
For much of its brief existence, Yang 2020 has been an online phenomenon. As Yang told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “I came from the internet.” When I interviewed him back in June, his entire campaign had just over 30 full-time staffers. (For context, Sanders, at the time, had more staff than that just in New Hampshire.) Yang’s top aides were political newcomers: Ryan, the campaign chief, was a former Army platoon leader who joined the campaign after going to business school at NYU, and Zach Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager and unflappable sidekick, had worked on Wall Street and run a small nonprofit. Employees filled multiple roles, and the whole thing had a make-it-up-as-you-go vibe. “The vaguer the title, the more accurate it is,” Carly Reilly, Yang’s deputy chief of staff, told me back then.
Yang’s first inflection point was his appearance on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast in February. The next inflection point was the second Democratic debate, in July. After a dismal showing at the first debate, Yang gave a strong (and unorthodox) performance in Detroit. Afterward, there was a boost in interest in Yang and his universal basic income proposal — a surge that has never receded. “That was really the moment,” Marchand says.
Yang’s campaign had already attracted people drawn to insurgent candidates: One of his early advisers was Liam deClive-Lowe, an organizer on Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate run and Sanders’ 2016 bid. But once it was clear the Yang bump was real, Democratic operatives with years of experience started calling the campaign looking for jobs.
One of those people was Zach Fang. In 2016, Fang had helped run field organizing for Sanders in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Maryland; he left a job on Congressman Tim Ryan’s presidential run to work for Yang. Eric Ming and Jared Volz, two Democratic consultants with decades of combined experience in the labor movement and congressional campaigns, came onboard as digital director and deputy campaign manager, respectively.
One lingering question among progressive consultants is whether Yang can preserve what makes him unique while bringing on more traditional staffers. “Are they going to follow the D.C. playbook and kill the authority of the people that got this so big?” one ex-Sanders staffer asks.
As field director, Fang tells me his job is to channel Yang’s online following into the kinds of actions that will increase Yang’s name ID with potential voters, grow the number of campaign volunteers, and start to build real support for Yang at the ground level. There’s no shortage of volunteers: At a recent all-staff meeting, the senior staff announced that the campaign’s Slack channel for active volunteers had surpassed its 10,000th member. There’s a saying inside the campaign, Fang says: “We need to move from URL to IRL.”
Fang began by building full-time teams in crucial early states such as Iowa and Nevada, and he says there are now nearly 300 so-called Yang Gangs — groups of volunteers taking direction from the campaign — in nearly every state. Much of the campaign’s instructions to those volunteers so far has entailed texting and phone banking, but Fang says that he is shifting that manpower to more door-to-door canvassing in the run-up to the primary and caucus season starting in 2020. “They understand that we have a strategy and they want to be a part of it,” Fang says of Yang’s supporters. “They understand what needs to happen.”
Ming, whose title was recently upgraded to director of digital and paid media, says he’s grown Yang’s digital team to 18 people with four or five more in the pipeline. A veteran of political campaigns, Ming says he joined Yang’s team for the same reason a lot of people support the campaign: Namely, there’s never been a presidential candidate who talks and acts quite like Yang. “They see someone running for president talking like they’ve never heard before,” Ming says, pointing to Yang’s message about the need to prepare for the changing nature of work as it relates to AI and automation.
Ming’s challenge is figuring how to use Yang’s fluency with internet culture and knack for generating viral moments — whether dancing the Cupid Shuffle at a South Carolina women’s workout class or crowd-surfing at an Asian-American Pacific Islander event — to expand the campaign’s support beyond the devoted Yang Gangers. “One of the things that we see is it could be anything,” Ming says. “We have a candidate who is very natural and internet-first in a way that many candidates aren’t. We have to figure out how to take best advantage of those moments.”
Even with a flawlessly executed campaign, Yang’s path to the nomination would involve an extraordinary run through the opening months of 2020, where one surprise win would attract fresh converts to the Yang Gang and bring an unprecedented number of new voters into the fold. But if Yang hopes to stand any chance of competing in 2020, he needs a strong performance in one of the early four primary and caucus states.
So far, Yang’s best bet for winning early-state delegates looks to be New Hampshire. He has polled as high as 5 percent there without a real campaign apparatus in place. Marchand says he believes that the state’s open primary system plays to Yang’s advantage. Without a competitive Republican primary, he says, Yang could benefit from undeclared voters choosing to vote in the Democratic primary and throwing their weight behind an outsider candidate like Yang who hasn’t shied away from shirking the party establishment.
“Undeclared voters are a tremendous bloc of potential support for Andrew,” Marchand says. “You can’t afford to not get Democratic votes obviously, and we’re getting Bernie voters, college voters, high-income and high-education white-collar voters. There’s a nice coalition building.”
Of course, for all the optimism among the Yang faithful, Yang is still polling in the single digits. He ranks sixth in Real Clear Politics’ national polling average, a distant 23 percentage points behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Yet looked at another way, one year ago Andrew Yang was a little-known author and former test-prep executive, while Beto O’Rourke was the hottest thing in Democratic politics. Today, Yang leads O’Rourke in many polls.
“We’re scrambling to grow the organization on the ground as fast as we want to,” Marchand says. “We have the resources to do what we want to do. It’s a matter of how fast can we do it.”