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Andrew Yang won the internet, but can he win a 2020 caucus?


DAVENPORT, IA – On a recent swing through Iowa, Andrew Yang was moving through his stump speech, a string of stories and statistics that can sound like an economics seminar. There was talk of flawed indicators and his signature plan to give a monthly check to every American. He warned about a dark and near future where America's highways are filled with trucks driven by robots. One crossed the U.S. last month with a trailer full of butter.

“Google it," he said.

But with the first votes of the Democratic primary due to be cast within weeks, a woman inside a crammed coffee shop had a more immediate concern for the 44-year-old entrepreneur who has become one of the surprise survivors of the long contest: What if we go to caucus for you on Feb. 3, she asked, and you don’t have enough support to win delegates? Why should we waste our votes?

After months of running on unconventional campaign strategies, cool branding and novel ideas, Yang has arrived at a new point in the 2020 campaign — one governed by the conventional rules of election and where the idea that matters most is your strategy for winning. The candidate powered by the online buzz is now trying to make it on the real, and often uncool, campaign trail through Iowa and New Hampshire.

While other second-tier candidates in the race are planning to use money and advertising to make an end-run around those early voting states, Yang says he's largely sticking to the traditional path.

His campaign staff has grown from about 30 people last summer to over 300, most in early voting states, and he's hired some well-known political hands, including the ad team from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. He's paid for it all with strong online fundraising, raising more than $16 million in the final quarter of last year. That's more than all but the top four candidates in the race, including two senators and a former vice president.

And the candidate who loves to talk about number crunching, data, and his plan to use a Power Point during his State of the Union address, assured the woman in Davenport that she didn't need to worry. “We have done the math,” he said, a nod to his campaign slogan Make America Think Harder, abbreviated on hats and pins as just MATH.

But major challenges remain for a campaign that has compared itself to a startup and that saw most of its early success online, with supporters who were mostly young and male. Yang did not meet Democratic National Committee polling requirements to participate in next Tuesday’s debate, the first time he’s failed to make the stage this election cycle. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll released Friday showed him with 5% support in Iowa, well behind the front- runners: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Yang and his supporters complain that his campaign hasn't received as much media coverage as it deserves, a grievance aired enough to make #mediablackout trend on Twitter. This week a cable news station included him in a graphic showing recent fundraising totals — but mistakenly used a photo of Geoff Yang, founder of a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, rather than the candidate.

Andrew Yang said he raised enough money last quarter to reach voters in the final weeks before voting starts and continues to see strong fundraising numbers. He’s also getting some help from celebrity endorsements, including comedian Dave Chappelle, who will perform at a fundraiser in South Carolina, and Donald Glover, an actor and musician who performs music as Childish Gambino and recently joined Yang’s campaign as a creative consultant.

“Americans are very smart and they recognize the truth when they hear it … and their contributions have given us a chance to make this case to the American people out there, all through the primary season,” Yang said after a stop in Tipton, Iowa, a rural community in a county that supported Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

Yang said his goal in Iowa is to surprise people by being “on the leader board,” though he wouldn’t say what place he needs to finish in. He said there are “a lot of natural strengths” for his campaign in New Hampshire, where there are a large number of Libertarians, along with former Trump voters and progressives, whom he considers his voters. A strong showing there, Yang believes, will help propel him through the other early voting states, Nevada and New Hampshire, and into the Super Tuesday contests on March 3.

“We'll be here the whole spring,” he said.

Yang’s core message has focused on the changing economy and millions of jobs lost to automation and artificial intelligence, particularly in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where voters were swayed by Trump’s promises to bring back American jobs. He says companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook that make money off automation and data should be taxed more to pay for his so-called freedom dividend, the $1,000 monthly payment Yang would give to Americans 18 and older.

Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link said he’s been impressed with the way Yang has been able to share his point of view on the changing economy, make it real for voters and talk about it in an approachable way. But Link said there are many undecided Iowa voters who will be making up their minds in the coming weeks, and while having millions in a campaign fund is helpful, not qualifying for the debate stage is “a big deal.”

“The No. 1 thing for voters is who is the candidate most likely to beat Trump,” Link said. “It’s hard to argue you’re the best candidate if you can’t make the debate.”

Jerry Stoefen, who was a union plumber for 42 years and farms outside Tipton, attended Yang’s event there and said he was glad to see someone talking about the loss of manufacturing jobs. The 62-year-old said he has narrowed his choices to Yang, Sanders and Buttigieg.

Stoefen said he believes Yang’s idea of giving $1,000 a month to people could work. But he said it might be a little too out there for many in his farming community.

“They think it’s just the craziest idea they ever heard,” he said. “They really do.”

Allison Ambrose, 57, an accounting professor from Davenport, called Yang a “breath of fresh air” but is also considering Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“He knows the solutions to the problems we don’t even know we have,” Ambrose said, though she also has her concerns. “Maybe because he's so different, and his lack of experience and his youth, that I'm not sure how electable he is.”

Yang isn't the first nontraditional candidate to make a White House bid, and few have been successful. There have only been four presidents age 46 — the age Yang would be on Inauguration Day — or younger, and the majority of presidents have served as governors, senators, vice presidents or Cabinet members. Only one has not held political office and has no military experience: Trump.

So there are voters like Barb Larson, 78, who may not write Yang off. Larson saw Yang speak at a bowling alley in Clinton, Iowa, where the candidate took a few turns bowling after addressing the crowd. Larson, who also is considering Warren, Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, left the event pleasantly surprised. She said she'll rely on her “gut feeling” come caucus day.

“I really, really like what he had to say about what he will do for us,” Larson said. “He’s made me more confused.”

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