NEW YORK: Andrew Yang is ready for his closeup next month at the first Democratic presidential debate, when he knows most Americans will have one question: "Who is the Asian man standing next to Joe Biden?"
The thousands of so-called "Yang Gang" members who braved cold and rain to attend the candidate's rally in New York City on Tuesday (May 14) evening shouted his name in reply, showing his eclectic campaign is catching on with some voters.
The 44-year-old entrepreneur, philanthropist and self-described nerd launched his long-shot bid more than a year ago, centered on a proposal to give every American US$1,000 a month in cash.
Since then, he has rolled out more than 100 policy ideas, a technocratic approach rivaled in sheer wonkiness perhaps only by that of US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts among the Democratic candidates seeking the 2020 nomination.
"I liked that he was a very policies-first kind of guy," said Chris Nyugen, 28, who attended the rally and is considering backing Yang over US Senator Bernie Sanders, his choice in the 2016 presidential election.
"He wasn't just anti-Trump," Nyugen said of Yang. "He ran on the issues."
Yang's odds of victory remain long against better-known and better-funded candidates such as Biden, a former vice president. Yang is drawing around 1 per cent support among voters in national polls, on par with experienced politicians like US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
A native of upstate New York and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang would be the first Asian-American president.
He has embraced social media, and Andrew Yang memes have proliferated on Reddit and Twitter. His campaign received a major boost after a lengthy February interview with comedian Joe Rogan's popular podcast.
Yang's biggest proposal is what's known as a universal basic income, or UBI, a concept that in recent years has gained traction within certain academic circles.
Under his "Freedom Dividend" plan, every adult American would receive US$1,000 a month regardless of income or work status, a cash infusion he says is the best way to combat the destruction of manufacturing and other jobs due to automation. The proposal would be funded by a European-style value-added tax that Yang says would ensure technology companies pay their fair share.
At the rally, Yang – who often sports a "MATH" hat in a nod to his devotion to numbers – rattled off the industries that were using machines to replace millions of humans: truck driving, retail stores and customer service call centers.
"Donald Trump is our president for one simple reason: Automation did away with 4 million manufacturing jobs," mostly in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that were key to Trump's 2016 victory, Yang said.
Tyler Riley, a 27-year-old from Weehawken, New Jersey, said Yang's argument resonated with him.
"A lot of candidates focus on immigration, but automation is doing a lot more damage to jobs than any immigrants coming into the US," he said.
Yang's platform includes a dizzying mix of standard Democratic fare like Medicare-for-all; voting reform proposals like eliminating gerrymandering or making the Electoral College proportional; and seemingly quirky concepts such as subsidising marriage counseling, giving everyone US$100 to donate to charity and establishing a US$1 billion journalism fund to support struggling local news outlets.
He has proposed cutting 10 per cent of US military spending and redirecting the funds to a domestic infrastructure force known as – in all seriousness – the Legion of Builders and Destroyers. The legion's commander would have the power to override local regulations in pursuing massive improvement projects.
Yang has leaned into his political outsider status, coining the slogan "Not Left, not Right, Forward," and emphasising his experience running an education startup company eventually acquired by test-prep giant Kaplan.
Some supporters said they would consider his campaign a success if it brings some of his policy proposals to the forefront.
"Even if he doesn't win, it's OK – his ideas are there," said Kai Wong, a 27-year-old physical therapy doctoral student at New York University.