In a press release on April 19, 2018, Andrew Yang announced that he would be personally giving a resident of New Hampshire $1,000 per month in 2019 to demonstrate the effectiveness of a Universal Basic Income policy, a cornerstone of Yang’s campaign. Media coverage at the time labeled Yang as a long shot, some of which considered the monthly payment as a gimmick to attract attention to his campaign. Nevertheless, Yang made appearances on numerous talk shows and podcasts, which garnered a base of online supporters that began to refer to themselves as the “Yang Gang.”
Yang then went to work in 2019, hauling across the country in a series of town halls, rallies, and talk shows to promote his positions on the economy, the environment, health care, foreign policy, and social issues. The work paid off, and by March he met the minimum donor count and minimum polling thresholds required to qualify for the first round of Democratic primary debates, raising $1.7 million by the end of the first quarter. By August, Yang had raised $2.8 million in both the second and third quarter of 2019, and by the end of the third quarter, his campaign raised $10 million, the largest fundraising growth rate of all candidates. Particularly interesting is that 99% of donations were less than $200, ranking first among all candidates in percent of money coming from small donations, a strong indicator of grassroots support from individuals motivated enough to contribute their own personal funds.
The first two Democratic presidential primary debates featured a field of 20 candidates, but the media spotlight at the time was on Beto O’Rourke, a Texas congressional representative that challenged incumbent Ted Cruz (R-TX) for his Senate seat, narrowly losing, but in the process raised $80 million in the campaign, showcasing his ability for political fundraising. O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris energized supporters and provided a youthful alternative to Washington veterans Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders that were in the race.
The attention paid to O’Rourke, Buttigieg, and Harris came at the expense of Yang, who was omitted from many media polls and even misidentified by MSNBC as “John Yang,” a slight that provoked the candidate to boycott the network for some time. It wasn’t an isolated incident, as other mass media polls omitted Yang despite polling stronger than the last person listed.
Instead of stoking Democratic establishment conspiracy theories or racial discrimination accusations proposed by avid supporters, Yang took the high road and responded publicly, “Sometimes honest mistakes happen. But NBC and MSNBC seem to omit me on the regular.” However, the omissions seemed to continue, and many of Yang’s supporters were not so gracious as the candidate, keeping score publicly and taking to social media with their results.
Adding fuel to the fire was a last minute change made in July by the Democratic National Committee that changed polling requirements to qualify for the September debates. While seemingly not directly targeted at Yang, the announcement enraged the campaign, which considered the timing of the rules change to be unfairly biased against them.
Harris, O’Rourke, and Cory Booker eventually all dropped out of the race, either unable to secure enough fundraising or meet the polling thresholds needed to continue. Michael Bloomberg also entered the race with a self-funded campaign that bought himself a share of media attention. With the herd thinned out, Buttigieg became the new media darling, eventually carrying that momentum into the Iowa caucuses and taking the state by surprise, mostly at the expense of Joe Biden, who came in fourth. Yang ended up placing sixth.
Media coverage disparity continued for Yang, who commanded a strong buzz on social media and national polling averages yet lacked commensurate news coverage and airtime, despite impressive fundraising numbers and supporter turnout. Nevertheless, Yang qualified for the eighth Democratic presidential debate on February 7th, which featured seven candidates that met the requirements to qualify, an accomplishment that many did not expect. However, although Yang led Tom Steyer in national polls, he was given significantly less speaking time during the debate.
Yang’s supporters were furious, with some accusing MSNBC of turning his microphone off during multiple national debates, and other supporters meticulously collecting evidence of mainstream media slights and errors as evidence of deliberate media bias against the candidate, spreading their message using the hashtags #YangMediaBlackout and #LetYangSpeak.
A Media Anomaly
The mainstream media has struggled with Andrew Yang. He’s a political outsider that has never run for office before. His name has been absent from years of nasty, partisan political battles in Washington. He has refused to stoke racist conspiracy theories or attack President Trump directly, instead preferring to speak about policy issues. He is an Asian-American, a demographic historically underrepresented in presidential races. He speaks intelligently on issues of foreign policy, the economy, the environment, and human rights without using his ethnicity as a crutch or a weapon. He is a well-educated family man with two children and a successful professional career, but is not a “billionaire”, a label that sometimes carries a pejorative connotation in the media.
All of this is befuddling the mainstream media, who has been unable to find a compelling story to sell. How about an underdog from a underprivileged and disadvantaged background overcoming adversity forced upon him by an unjust American system? Yang, the son of well-educated Taiwanese immigrants, faced some racial slurs and bullying, but basically worked hard, attending Philips Exeter Academy, Brown University, and Columbia University before entering into a successful professional career. How about a demagogue that can rally popular support and win an argumentum ad hominem social media war with Donald Trump? Yang refuses to blame Trump directly, instead focusing on the issues that he identifies as plaguing American communities. How about a shadowy billionaire crony capitalist puppet master? Nothing there. Race card? Nope. There’s no gimmick, no controversy, no scandal to sell more views and more ads. In the era of the Internet pay-per-view economy, Big Media was unable to establish a narrative to capitalize on the Yang Gang.
Despite the disparity in media coverage, Yang has worked hard on his ground game and on social media, reaching out to supporters in person and online, gaining support from some unexpected sources. Yang’s next challenge is to meet the polling thresholds for the ninth Democratic debates in Las Vegas, which require at least 10% support in four separately-sponsored national polls, or 12% in two polls conducted in Nevada and/or South Carolina.
While it’s very unlikely that Yang will continue to win the Democratic nomination, the impact of his campaign cannot be understated. While all the other leading candidates pitched themselves as the best alternative to Trump, Yang has pitched himself as the best candidate in general because of his position on the issues, a message that resonated with supporters that have signed up to back Yang. For voters frustrated with partisan mudslinging, moral grandstanding, impeachment drama, and legislative ineffectiveness in Washington, Yang represents a break from the Democratic establishment, an outsider who from all appearances seems to care more about the issues than trying to beat Trump on Twitter.
This overall trend in public sentiment became apparent in the 2016 Republican primary, when another outsider shook up the GOP establishment and continued to win the presidency. But when Donald Trump entered the presidential race, he enthralled the media with a combative rhetoric filled with self-aggrandizement and belittling epithets that insulted other candidates and set social media on fire. The salivating media literally couldn’t help themselves and essentially vaulted Trump to the top of the polls while pocketing millions in pay-per-view ad dollars. Throw in Russian media trolls and unchecked conspiracy theorists and you had a perfect storm of media dollars.
Andrew Yang’s style is essentially the polar opposite, promoting a campaign centered on education, human rights and empowering communities, neatly summarized into a campaign slogan “Make America Think Harder” (aka “MATH”), with a narrative that describes a crony capitalist technocracy that has created an increasing income disparity to the detriment of American communities. In this story, Trump is not the villain and Yang is not the hero, this is about a government whose policies have created mega-billionaires while neglecting the masses. Campaign hyperbole aside, Yang’s hard work and ethical approach has attracted significant public support that highlights a growing public sentiment that cannot be ignored. The mainstream media simply hasn’t found a lucrative story to tell.