Andrew Yang and the End of Rules

Andrew Yang is gone from the presidential race. But not forgotten. His competitors were very quick to praise and eulogize his campaign, recognizing his endorsement would be one of the few non-Obama ones of value. How did we get here? How did someone who wasn’t famous, wasn’t crazy wealthy, and didn’t have traditional credentials wind up being a thing?

Also he wore well. That’s even more remarkable. When Yang began, most voters had no opinion, and those who did were more skeptical than not. By the time he bailed, Yang had higher favorability ratings with Democrats than all but the top few candidates and the lowest negatives.

Anecdotally (because there’s limited data), he’s more popular with Republicans than most/all of his fellow contestants. He’s the guy where people say “I don’t agree with a lot of his ideas, but I really like him.” He singlehandedly made Universal Basic Income more of a thing than any time since Richard Nixon formally proposed it five decades ago. I judged at a high school debate competition a couple weeks ago, and UBI was the topic du jour.

We can speculate on what’s next for him. Commerce Secretary or some sort of Tech Czar in a Democratic administration. Maybe he’ll run for Governor of New York in 2022, or Mayor of NYC in 2021. It’s easy to see him in the 2024 presidential contest if Trump wins or the Democrat is too old to go again (hint: the combined odds are super high.) Who knows. It will be something. Mr. Yang and his charming family aren’t leaving us soon. The Yang Gang won’t vanish either. He’ll mobilize them for something.

Running for the White House isn’t just about occupying it anymore. It used to be that a governor or senator would try to move up to the top job, the way a corporate SVP wants to become president of the company. It wasn’t to build visibility or create/extend a brand, it was to try to win the nomination. That’s what was next. Worst case, they’d get the VP spot as a consolation. Run well, but fall a little short? Pole position for next time, like Mitt Romney after 2008 or John McCain after 2000.

A few things have changed. First, states have become very partisan. In the 1976 presidential election, a full 30 states were decided by 5 points or less. Twenty three states voted Republican in 1972, then Democrat in 1976. Sixteen of those went back to the GOP in 1980. Half the country was a swing state. Beyond that, plenty of voters would split tickets between local, statewide, and presidential choices. There weren’t many places where belonging to one party or the other automatically blocked advancement.

As we know, this isn’t our present universe. Candidates like Julian Castro and Pete Buttigieg ran for president, despite lacking traditional credentials, at least in part, because they felt blocked in their red states from moving up to bigger offices. As Castro can tell you, this isn’t an easy project. If anything, his career was harmed by his feeble run. But Mayor Pete showed the upside that makes this against all odds worth the try.

While Yang hadn’t ever held office on any level, nor even attempted it, he did start and sell a business, and traveled extensively around the country. By the standards of 2000, he wasn’t a qualified candidate. Currently, it’s a very plausible background, especially to the millions of voters who despise Washington D.C. denizens.

It’s tempting to think Donald Trump has something to do with this shift. That he’s changed what makes a credible presidential candidate. I disagree. He began his campaign with almost 100% name recognition. Yang began with almost 0%. Trump was the logical conclusion of decades of Republican “non-politician” candidates, beginning with Pat Robertson in 1988, and continuing with Steve Forbes (1996, 2000), Herman Cain (2012), Ben Carson & Carly Fiorina (2016) among others.

Trump was the biggest and most famous fish of the group, but all were higher visibility than Yang. He couldn’t fully or partially self-finance like Trump, Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, or Romney (who spent tens of millions seeding his 2008 effort.) The only real precursor for Yang is AOC, who went from unknown Bronx bartender to national phenomenon in months.

Her case is notable, because it took a flicker of intrigue (successfully primarying a powerful, if not nationally-known congressman), a vibrant personality, aggressive policy proposals (Green New Deal), the media vortex, and millennial social media skills to create a unicorn of a freshman representative.

AOC was and is propelled by a combination of extreme love and extreme hate. The far left and far young love her. The far right and the far old hate her. Yang hasn’t registered quite as much, but he made a big impact. But he did it without the backlash. Without having enemies to fire up a base. He’s most popular with younger voters, but doesn’t have a Sanders-style age gulf. He’s more popular on the left than right, but again, he’s no AOC.

Fun thought experiment: think of how UBI would be even more controversial, and how the Green New Deal would be perceived as less threatening, if you swapped the proponents.

AOC holds public office. Yang just dropped out. So we don’t have proof that avoiding enemies leads to winning. But we do know there are new paths to national notoriety. And the old rules for who can both run for president and matter while doing so are in shards. It’s a New World. More will follow. Not everyone has Yang’s tool kit for success. But he’s blown open the barricades. Forget most of what you thought you knew.

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