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Andrew Yang: Outsider injects basic income into White House race

$1,000-a-month proposal draws support from Elon Musk, millennials and Republicans

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang arrives in during a campaign event in Plymouth, New Hampshire in February 2020.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang continues to defy conventional wisdom.

Widely considered a long-shot candidate, he has qualified, relatively easily, for the fifth Democratic Party debate on Nov. 20, clearing the party requirements for grassroots fundraising and polling.

Those thresholds, higher than previous debates, were installed to shake off candidates like Yang, so that the voters can focus more on mainstream candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Yang stunned political pundits by raising $10 million in the third quarter, a 257% increase from the previous quarter. A September poll in New Hampshire had Yang beating President Donald Trump 54% to 46%.  

Yang is a son of Taiwanese immigrants and the first prominent East Asian candidate in U.S. presidential elections. But qualifying for all the Democratic presidential debates is not the 44-year-old Asian American entrepreneur's only surprise. Yang also holds appeal for Silicon Valley techies and Republicans.

Members of his "Yang Gang" of enthusiastic supporters gathered at a cafe in Concord, New Hampshire, one Saturday morning in late September.

Yang likes to say he is the candidate to beat Donald Trump because he is laser-focused on the problems that got Trump elected in the first place.

And "the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!" Yang said at the Concord event.

Signature attire for Yang supporters is the "MATH" hat -- short for "Make America Think Harder," an apparent parody of Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.

Two Republican women voiced strong support for Yang and said they plan to register as Democrats to vote for him.

"His policy is not Democrat or Republican," a woman in a MATH hat said. "It's fiscally conservative and not socialist. Just common sense." Yang got her first-ever campaign donation, she said.

Yang speaks at an event in Concord, New Hampshire. (Photo by Tomoko Ashizuka)

The core of Yang's political message is universal basic income, which Yang calls the Freedom Dividend. It is a proposal to give every American adult over 18 $1,000 a month, paid for partly by a new value-added tax on companies benefiting from automation.

This progressive and unconventional policy has attracted a wide range of supporters: ex-fans of democratic socialist candidate Sanders, college students and even some Republicans.

"Yang can heal our divided country," another woman at the New Hampshire event said. He has "practical solutions" for income inequality, climate change and the political system, she said.

New Hampshire, along with Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, is one of the first states to choose the candidate in the Democratic primaries. Candidates' performance there will form a crucial step on the path to nomination.

Jason Son, a 37-year-old Chinese American businessman, drove two hours from Boston to attend Yang's town-hall-style meeting with family.

"Andrew Yang is a young, successful entrepreneur and has fresh ideas," Son said. "He may lack foreign policy experience, but nobody is perfect, and he can hire experts."

The Asian American community "as a whole is excited," Son said. "I know many Koreans in New York support him. He is a great role model for our children," he added, looking at his son and daughter.

Yang is especially popular among Asian communities and immigrants, having grown up in a Taiwanese immigrant family.

Yang is popular among techies in Silicon Valley who support his proposed universal basic income. Front-runner Sen. Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up such big technology companies as Google and Facebook.   © Reuters

At a Silicon Valley gathering, supporters explained that Yang represents a voice for Asian immigrants and that his policies are welcomed in technology circles.

"Yang is not pushing for breaking up the big tech," said Hira Kayani, 24, a sales representative at a software company. "It's a duct-tape solution. He is thinking [about] taxing tech companies."

"I think people here think Yang's approach to tech companies is more friendly than others," Kayani said.

One of the most prominent Yang endorsers is Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk has not only expressed support for the candidate but has tweeted that universal basic income is "Obviously needed."   

"California has a lot of Asians, especially in Silicon Valley," said June Fu, a 25-year-old marketing manager at a startup. "A lot of first-generation Asian immigrants here feel like they didn't have the platform or spokesperson to express their demand and interest in the past, and Yang is the one who can speak out for them and represent them."

"I think some of Yang's policy is very friendly to immigrants, which is a huge thing for people in the valley because a lot of programmers here are high-skill-work immigrants," Fu said. "I think the universal basic income is really attractive, too."

Before Yang embarked on his presidential campaign, he was known for helping entrepreneurs.

Yang checks his watch during a break at the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12.   © Reuters

Born in upstate New York, he studied economics and political science at Brown University and received a law degree from Columbia. After a stint as a corporate lawyer, he worked for a health care startup and became managing director and then CEO and president at a test preparation company in his 30s. After the company was acquired, Yang founded Venture for America, a nonprofit organization that assists entrepreneurs. He was named a Champion of Change and a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

Yang launched his presidential bid in November 2017 and gained national recognition this February following an appearance on a popular podcast with comedian Joe Rogan. Many supporters cite the podcast as where they learned about Yang. He has since grown his base, mainly online.

Yang is not free from controversy. His casual comment in the third Democratic debate, "I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors," drew criticism for reinforcing the "model minority" stereotype of Asian Americans. When comedian Shane Gillis was fired from the popular TV show "Saturday Night Live" for past anti-Asian comments, Yang criticized Gillis but said he should not have lost his job. The candidate's defense of the comedian generated some backlash.

Even with his long odds and paltry speaking time in the debates, Yang expresses confidence in his candidacy.

"Clearly, the strength of the Yang Gang is not getting measured in conventional polling," he said in a podcast on poll analysis website FiveThirtyEight. Many supporters are not considered "registered likely" Democratic primary voters, he argued.

Yang is trying to carry his momentum to the first Democratic caucus in Iowa and to the first primary this coming February, in New Hampshire.

"If you look at the campaigns, we are one of perhaps two campaigns that have risen steadily. ... We're going to grow and grow and grow and peak at the right time, which is February of next year," he said in the FiveThirtyEight podcast.

Nikkei staff writers Yifan Yu in Silicon Valley and Marrian Zhou in New York contributed to this report.

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