MIAMI – John Hickenlooper, the former two-term governor of Colorado, hardly attracted any attention as he walked alone outside the Knight Concert Hall on Wednesday, while fellow Democratic presidential candidates filed in and out for debate walk-throughs.
But just steps away in the Miami heat, a crowd of journalists was focused on someone else: Andrew Yang, a New York entrepreneur who has never run for office before and who many Americans had never heard of before -- but who has elbowed his way on to the debate stage with Hickenlooper and other presidential candidates Thursday night.
Who is Andrew Yang? And how did this happen?
“I love the Yang Gang so much,” the 44-year-old Yang told Fox News during a gaggle with reporters, referring to the ardent group of supporters who’ve latched on to his campaign in recent months after a spate of podcast and television interviews where he has repeatedly warned of the dangers of automation for working-class jobs.
The Yang Gang got their candidate a spot on the debate stage Thursday night – just two podiums away from former Vice President Joe Biden – by imploring supporters to contribute any amount to his campaign. While other candidates with experience in Congress or as governors of states struggled to cross the polling or contribution threshold to get an invitation to the debates, Yang exceeded the 65,000 individual donor threshold months ago.
“I’m in a great position for this debate because no one’s going to want to take pot shots at me,” Yang told reporters. “I mean, I’m on stage with four of the front-runners. Most Americans are still getting to know me and my campaign.”
A central part of Yang’s campaign is the radical, expensive proposal to give all Americans what he calls a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 a month. He said he would pay for it by putting a value-added tax on tech companies.
“If you put a mechanism in place where the American people are getting a tiny slice of every Amazon sale, every Google search, every Facebook ad, every robot truck mile, then you can pay for a thousand dollar dividend,” he said.
To draw attention to his universal basic income proposal, Yang has chosen two early-voting state residents – one in Iowa, and one in New Hampshire -- to pay $1,000 a month out of his own pocket for one year.
Yang insisted on Wednesday that giving away money to voters is “100 percent legal,” saying he consulted lawyers and the Federal Election Commission first. And he denied it amounts to buying votes.
“All you have to do is talk to any of the people that are actually receiving the freedom dividend and ask them has anyone from my campaign ever said that they need to do anything in return and you will categorically no: they can vote for whoever they like,” he said.
Part of Yang’s pitch is that he can better solve “the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.” He warns that the United States “automated away” manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa, and the same could happen to millions of retail, call center, fast food and truck driving jobs where businesses replace workers with robots and technology.
His unconventional pitch has attracted a devoted base. Praising the Yang Gang, the candidate recalled how his supporters recently stacked the theater without his knowledge when he appeared on Stephen Colbert's show. The result was roaring applause.
“I can’t tell you how invigorating it is to have those kinds of supporters wherever we go,” he said. “And anyone that thinks it’s just online, just come to one our rallies.”
Yang on Thursday night will be on stage with Biden, Hickenlooper, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Rep. Eric Swalwell and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson.
Though he has never been in the spotlight like this, Yang denied being nervous, saying the opportunity is “nothing but upside” for him.
“I’m just introducing myself to the American people,” he said. “I feel like I have absolutely nothing to be nervous about. It’s all excitement.”