Pham, the Yang volunteer, works as a data scientist developing chatbots—software that mimics human conversation—that will eventually replace call-center workers. Automation, Pham told me, is “something that we need to address, and … a lot of candidates don't.”
John Michael Haas, a 32-year-old Orange Theory instructor from Fort Worth, Texas, told me that he first heard Yang on the comedian Joe Rogan’s popular podcast back in February. (This is one of the more common ways voters discover Yang: through his interviews on podcasts and YouTube channels, or conversations on the massive online discussion forum Reddit. His fans call it being Yanged). “It was the UBI that hooked me first,” Haas said. A thousand dollars a month would have helped his mother immeasurably while she was taking care of his sick grandparents, Haas explained, and it would make it easier for him and his wife to start a family. “UBI is a good way to fix a lot of the issues that face this country,” he said. “That’s going to be [Yang’s] biggest legacy for this primary.”
Yang’s warnings about the threat that automation poses to America’s workforce have been called into question by economists, many of whom argue that trade—not automation—is more responsible for the decline in U.S. factory work. Critics have also challenged his campaign’s seriousness. Last month, a video of the candidate gleefully squirting whipped cream into his kneeling supporters’ open mouths inspired some in the Twitter commentariat to label him a “frat boy.” But Yang’s supporters said all they saw in the clip was a normal person experiencing the sheer human delight of a full can of Reddi-wip. He is so unpolished in the way that other politicians aren’t, Haas remembered thinking when he saw it for the first time.
If Yang’s supporters see Sanders as a model for what his campaign’s success would look like, it could be because there’s overlap between the two candidates’ fan bases, despite their differences in policy and experience. More Bernie fans consider Yang to be their second-choice candidate than do fans of the other front-runners, according to recent polling from Morning Consult. Sixteen percent of self-described potential Sanders voters said they were keeping an eye on Yang too, according to an Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight poll from earlier this fall. In the same poll, some 57 percent of Yang backers reported they’re also considering Sanders.
Pham’s fiance, Eric Huynh, who also discovered Yang on The Joe Rogan Experience, was a Sanders backer in 2016. Now he wants Yang. “Some people like supporting the underdog,” Huynh told me at trivia night with a shrug, “the candidates who have the more interesting ideas or out-there ideas, but are really trying to break into the top tier.”
That Yang’s campaign has lasted this long already, attracting voters from various political factions, suggests that his ideas have at least some level of staying power. “I know what you're thinking, America. How am I still on this stage with them?” Yang said with a smile during his closing statement during Thursday’s debate, for which he was the last candidate to qualify. “Our campaign is growing all the time because we are laser-focused on solving the real problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.”
As the primary wears on, the bar to qualify for debates will only get higher, and the first elections of the primary are coming in just over a month, which will likely significantly winnow the field. But regardless of whether his candidacy survives, his supporters are betting, with every dollar they donate and person they’re able to Yang, that his message will.