CONCORD, N.H. — Andrew Yang arrived for the first New Hampshire event of his presidential campaign in a Subaru with a dented fender. It was the spring of 2018, and he and three staff members had taken his car to Concord, where they were hoping a few dozen voters would be waiting for them at a coffee shop. Inside, they found one. She listened politely while Mr. Yang explained universal basic income, though she was mostly focused on her coffee and sandwich.
Nineteen months and several million dollars later, the Democratic candidate punctuated his 22nd trip to this early voting state on Friday by filing paperwork to appear on the ballot inside the New Hampshire State House, just a few blocks from the coffee shop where the campaign had gotten off to a less-than-auspicious start.
This time, Mr. Yang arrived in a rented black suburban, his advance team had distributed New Hampshire-specific bumper stickers and the voters who lined the hallway to the secretary of state’s office chanted Mr. Yang’s name as he marched triumphantly down it, doling out high fives along the way.
“Wow,” he said as he walked by, a grin widening onto his face. “Look at this.”
Enthusiasm for Mr. Yang is probably most palpable here in New Hampshire where the entrepreneur has repeatedly polled around 5 percent, his strongest showing in an early-voting state. Those kinds of numbers in February will not earn him any delegates. But by just about any measure — from the ubiquitous blue MATH hats to the lapel pins that spell the same thing — the entrepreneur with zero political experience is doing much better in this Democratic primary than many thought was possible.
People recognize him on the street. His central concern, automation, got attention at a nationally televised debate and many voters now know he wants to hand out a “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 a month to every American adult. He raised $10 million in the third quarter and has more than $6 million still in the bank — the sixth most of any Democratic candidate as of the end of September.
All of which leaves Mr. Yang and his senior campaign staff — some of whom, before this, had never run a campaign of any kind — with a new quandary: What do we do now?
“We have been making a very similar case throughout the last number of weeks and months. It’s been a very fact-based case,” Mr. Yang said while munching on calamari after a chilly outdoor town hall in Portsmouth, N.H.
But moving forward, Mr. Yang said he wants his message to become “more human based” — perhaps a necessary shift for a candidate seeking a broader audience who has thus far focused much of his attention on robots. His vision of a “human based” campaign, he said, involves talking more about the way he thinks his signature pitch can really change lives.
“Telling the stories of the people that are receiving the Freedom Dividend, telling the stories of people who are not getting the Freedom Dividend but whose lives would be changed if they did and also telling my story to a higher degree,” Mr. Yang said.
The strategical pivot — the most significant in the campaign to date — is most clearly exemplified by the new television ad Mr. Yang’s team put on the air Thursday in Iowa. They spent more than $1 million on the ad buy, the kind of seven-figure sum they did not have available to them for the long first few phases of his run. The ad was shot and produced by Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, the sort of experienced media consulting firm that the campaign previously could not attract. Much of it is spent unpacking Mr. Yang’s personal story and ticking off a list of policy priorities, the last of which is universal basic income.
It’s the sort of ad that few on Team Yang were likely to have imagined running at the beginning of the year, back when the campaign was struggling to make payroll — or that even the most optimistic aide would have envisioned when a small group of political novices first started working on Yang 2020.
Matt Shinners, now the campaign’s communications director, said he had the most political experience of anyone on the team at the beginning. He had volunteered on John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
“It seemed like an interesting thing I could do for a while,” he said of coming on board. “Nobody’s joining the Andrew Yang campaign in 2018 because they want to advance their political career.”
From the time Mr. Yang filed his statement of candidacy in the fall of 2017 to February 2019 when he went on The Joe Rogan Experience, the campaign consisted of the candidate and no more than eight full-time staff members. A few of those eight volunteered out of Mr. Yang’s mother’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for months before the campaign finally moved to an office in Midtown.
At first, the campaign was so focused on Mr. Yang’s basic income pitch that its website URL was “UBI2020.com,” not “Yang2020.com.” Policy pages were written off Mr. Yang’s campaign book, “The War on Normal People.” Top aides took pictures at angles that would make rooms look fuller than they were. They did not know to print signs with Mr. Yang’s name on both sides, so it would be visible from the front and back.
They set up their ActBlue account so that a sound would ring through the office every time someone made a donation. They celebrated every time.
There wasn’t that much to celebrate in the early days. In late 2018, Mr. Yang recalled, the campaign had “maybe $20,000 in the bank,” and held a New Year’s party as a fund-raiser that ended up being a “fund-loser.” The party was so bad, he added, one person who showed up demanded a refund.
All of which made the day of the Rogan podcast a significant turning point. On that day alone, the campaign raised “a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” Carly Reilly, the campaign’s national finance director said. (Ms. Reilly noted that she did not assume the title of “finance director” until July, when the campaign finally had enough finances to warrant a director.)
Mr. Yang qualified for the first debate in June, then the second. His team raised millions more, hired two dozen more people, expanded to another floor of their Midtown headquarters, opened 16 field offices and then hired even more staff members.
The team now has over 100 people — a much larger proportion of which have some background in politics. New hires have come from the now defunct presidential campaigns of Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
But Mr. Yang’s leadership team is still somewhat devoid of conventional political experience. Zach Graumann, Mr. Yang’s campaign manager, came from finance and the nonprofit world; Nick Ryan, the campaign chief, spent time in the military; Ms. Reilly had a background in finance and media.
There is “a very helpful degree of respect for the fact that we got ourselves to this point, not by following a typical consultant playbook,” Mr. Yang said. “Most of the experienced hands who have joined are like, ‘O.K., there’s something special going on here — let’s not break it.’”
Politico recently called the operation a “pirate-ship campaign.” Mr. Graumann has said he prefers to see it as a “start up.” Asked what she would call it, Ms. Reilly initially used an analogy that suggested that, whatever it is, it is potentially breakable.
“We talk about building a plane while flying — we’re like a janky but powerful aircraft,” Ms. Reilly said.
She paused to reconsider.
“Not janky,” she revised. “We started like a Wright Brothers plane and now we’re like a G7.”
Indeed, the campaign — if not the metaphor to describe it — appeared quite steady during Mr. Yang’s three-day swing through New Hampshire last week. The candidate did not stray far from his standard stump speech during the first few events, but by his third town hall in Dover, N.H., he began testing new material. He named specific people who have received the Freedom Dividend and explained how they had used it. Then he began an unfamiliar riff in which he outlined his priorities for education and argued that $1,000 a month would improve outcomes by freeing up parental time at home.
Aficionados of his pitch noticed the changes.
“You know when you read online something that somebody wrote that was good? And you’re like, ‘Did a marketing person write that or did that really happen?’” said Mel Ingalls, 61, of Gilford, N.H. “There was a little bit of that.”
Mr. Yang’s performance was also met with a mixed reaction by some of the people he still needs to win over. Chris Wilson, a 49-year-old Democrat from Durham, N.H, saw Mr. Yang speak in person for the first time last week and said he came away “underwhelmed.”
“He’s established some of the issues — that we’re going to get run over by automation,” he said. “But what else are you going to do to change that?”
With less than three months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Yang will need voters like Mr. Wilson to join his camp if he hopes to have any chance of success. In his interview with The New York Times over dinner, Mr. Yang said he believes the fragmented primary field would likely help him and that the ad buy could help him boost his standing in Iowa and compete in all of the early voting states.
Mr. Yang’s aides have long seen New Hampshire as critical. He has found a footing here with the state’s significant share of undeclared voters, as well as libertarians and disaffected Trump supporters, leading Steve Marchand, one of the Yang campaign’s senior advisers and a former mayor of Portsmouth to proclaim that the state is “his best chance to shock the world in 2020.”
Having consumed a bowl of chowder and some of the calamari, Mr. Yang called out to a waiter who was whisking away an untouched piece of corn on the cob and procured it for himself.
He insisted that things are not going well in America, that he is deeply concerned that President Trump will get re-elected and that he genuinely believes he offers Democrats the best chance to take the White House.
Is he pleased to be in this position? Yes. Surprised? He bristles at the suggestion.
“I know there’s a wistful, ‘Isn’t it incredible Andrew Yang is still in the race?’” Mr. Yang said, to which he offered an expletive-laden response.
“We’re in it to win it, we have the resources to fight the whole way,” he added. “Anyone who underestimates this campaign is going to look dumber and dumber over time.”
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