Andrew Yang walked off the stage of the second Democratic debate on July 31, fists pumping and grinning ear to ear. Offstage, his top two aides, Zach Graumann and Nick Ryan, gave each other a giant hug: Yang had finally performed the way they wanted him to.
His first debate had not gone well. Yang was stilted and uncomfortable, and a repeat performance would likely bring an unmerciful end to his quixotic campaign. So in preparation for the next one, the campaign did something highly unusual: They hired a cast of professional actors for a mock debate, where he practiced explaining why it was a good idea to hand out $1,000 a month to every adult as well as his ideas on health care, the economy and more.
When Yang took the stage for the real thing, something clicked. After the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Ryan, who started as an intern but within weeks obtained the official title of “campaign chief,” was startled by what he saw: Money started pouring in. “Something in the range of like $50,000 the hour that closed out the debate,” he said.
The campaign would announce a $9.9 million haul in the quarter after that performance. The haul sent a shock wave through the primary. With that kind of money, the guy whose campaign seemed like a gimmick was sticking around. Something was happening.
Yang’s campaign started as just a thought in his head, no hangers-on or advisers. He had never thought about running for president growing up because, he said, “I’m not insane.” But after Donald Trump’s win in 2016, the entrepreneur was distraught. And he thought he understood better than anyone how it happened: The country was automating away manufacturing jobs, and people were angry about it. Trump channeled that anger, Yang believed, without offering an actual solution to it.