By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Entrepreneur Andrew Yang knows most people initially viewed his candidacy for U.S. president – and his campaign promise to guarantee every American a basic, government-funded income – as a gimmick.
"You all heard at some point there's an Asian man running for president who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month," the 44-year-old New York Democrat said to laughter and cheers inside a packed union hall this month in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Then he turned serious: "We're in an era of economic change, and we need to think differently."
That way of thinking has propelled Yang, the Ivy League-educated son of Taiwanese immigrants who would be the country's first Asian-American president, from what many considered to be an entertaining diversion to a mainstream contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Now Yang's campaign, which began in 2017 but has seen its fortunes rise sharply in recent months, is rushing to catch up with rivals.
He stands near 3% in the latest public opinion polls, putting him in sixth place in the 19-candidate field ahead of numerous sitting lawmakers. His $10 million fundraising haul in the third quarter was the sixth-most among Democrats and more than triple his total for the second quarter.
Most importantly, he continues to inspire a fervent following known as the Yang Gang, supporters who wear blue "MATH" hats - a tribute to Yang's devotion to data that has since become an acronym for "Make America Think Harder" - and revel in his "nerdy" campaign.
When Yang promised to become the first president to use PowerPoint in a State of the Union address, the Las Vegas crowd chanted, "PowerPoint! PowerPoint!"
Yang's central message – that automation is destroying U.S. jobs and that his "Freedom Dividend" is the best way to mitigate the damage – has particularly resonated with young, male Democrats, independents and some Republicans, according to Reuters/Ipsos polls.
In that sense, Yang appears to be drawing many of the same types of voters U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders did in his unexpectedly strong outsider run for the White House in 2016.
According to Reuters polling data, Sanders supporters are three times as likely to choose Yang as their second favorite than backers of either U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren or former Vice President Joe Biden, the other two leading contenders.
Las Vegas resident Kelsey McCormick, 30, said she "fell in love" with Yang after hearing about his universal basic income proposal.
"It's refreshing for a politician to say he'll give people what they need without telling them how to use it," she said.
BUILDING A 'YANG GANG' GROUND GAME
Buoyed by last quarter's cash infusion, Yang's team is aggressively hiring in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, just in time for the crucial stretch ahead of the first nominating contests in February.
Yang's aides, while reluctant to share precise figures, said the campaign staff - currently in excess of 75 - had tripled since Sept. 1 and would triple again by Nov. 1.
The hiring spree is aimed at translating Yang's online strength – including Yang Gang volunteers across the country – into on-the-ground operations such as neighborhood canvassing and phone banks.
Several Democratic officials in New Hampshire and Iowa said Yang's ground operations still lag well behind those of his main rivals, including Warren, Biden, Sanders and others, who were able to build up teams earlier in the year.
Last week, Yang staffers held a two-day retreat in New York City, where they mapped out strategy and played appropriately nerdy bonding games, like presidential trivia.
The campaign, whose top aides early on were all political neophytes, has brought on more than a half-dozen seasoned Democratic operatives since the summer.
One of those new hires is national organizing director Zach Fang, who oversaw field operations in several states for Sanders' 2016 campaign and previously worked for Democratic U.S. Representative Tim Ryan's presidential campaign this year.
Like many of Yang's supporters, Fang said he joined because Yang's focus on automation made sense to him after he spent time working in Silicon Valley, where he saw firsthand the way technology was threatening traditional work.
"There was no one else saying what Andrew was saying," Fang said. "I didn't realize how many other 'me's' there were out there in the world."
During the Las Vegas town hall, Yang dismissed the various theories propagated by cable television pundits as reasons for Trump's victory in 2016: racism, Russia, Hillary Clinton.
"The real catalyst and the numbers – I'm a numbers guy – is that we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa," he said. "And if that list of states sounds familiar, those are the states that Donald Trump needed to win, and did win."
Yang said Nevada, which relies heavily on its hospitality industry, will lose more jobs to automation than any other state, noting that MGM Resorts International has announced plans to replace bartenders with robots at its casinos.
"We're in the midst of the greatest economic transformation in the history of our country, what experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution," he said. "When is the last time you heard a politician say the words 'fourth industrial revolution'?"
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)