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How political outsider Andrew Yang grew his base and qualified for the 2019 debates

This Democratic challenger made the transition from internet meme to grassroots movement and drove early fundraising success by mobilizing his committed fan base, the Yang Gang.

By Jane St. John

metrics

  • 1.7MM
  • raised
  • 100K
  • donors
  • 5K
  • event attendees

It’s a year before the 2020 U.S. Presidential election will begin in earnest, and former entrepreneur and outsider candidate Andrew Yang has already raised nearly two million dollars and built a campaign with more than one hundred thousand individual donors—significantly surpassing the threshold required to enter the first primary debates scheduled for the summer of 2019. Moreover, instead of relying on party-approved talking points, the Yang campaign has crafted its platform around a fairly radical idea: a universal income of $1,000 each month for all Americans aged eighteen to sixty-four.

Though the Yang campaign commands a small percentage of the polling electorate as yet, the base they’ve energized—fondly named the Yang Gang—has drawn media attention for its passion and commitment in an already crowded race of Democrating candidates, with no early consensus on a frontrunner. To help break down what makes this campaign so successful within its niche, we spoke to Campaign Manager Zach Graumann and Carly Reilly, Chief of Staff and Director of Engagement, about how the Yang campaign took flight, and how they used NationBuilder to find, engage, and grow their community.

An important part of the equation is the fresh perspective of this outsider candidate—a quality that motivated Reilly to join the campaign’s efforts:

“He didn't speak in platitudes but rather in really outlined, thoughtful policy, and I thought he was hitting the nail on the head in terms of the problems he was identifying,” she says. “I trusted his capacity to deliver the solutions he was outlining. That combination of things was very rare to me, and it was refreshing… I reached out to the campaign saying, ‘I clearly want to be a part of this.’”

When Yang spoke as a guest in February on popular podcast the Joe Rogan Experience, thousands of new fans were similarly struck by his message. As covered by Holly Bailey of the Washington Post, “after the Rogan podcast, Yang’s Twitter followers jumped eightfold — going from roughly 34,000 to 287,000 in a little over a month. Online fans started creating thousands of memes and videos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media, spreading his campaign further.”

Of course, word of mouth promotion and viral social media content can only take a candidate so far—Yang’s team needed to have the right kind of digital infrastructure to translate all that positive energy into donations, volunteer sign-ups, and pledges of support on their campaign website. The campaign’s early days were powered by a different political platform that provided limited visibility into reporting and donor information, which left Graumann searching for another solution. “I was very frustrated so I said to my team: 'Look at all of our options and find a better one, and if we have to build it ourselves we will.’ And they all came back and said NationBuilder is by far our best option,” he says.

On the topic of choosing to work with a nonpartisan tool as opposed to other exclusively progressive Democratic software options:

“There's a very destructive mentality that’s like, if the software that the other [party] used was really great and worked, that we can't use it because they used it. Coming from Wall Street, coming from business, that's not how you operate at all—you have to be the opposite. If your competitor is using a great software, you are more inclined to use it to keep up. Honestly after making sure it was a fit, it was a 100% no brainer.

We picked NationBuilder because we wanted to be the tech-savvy campaign. We have a really interesting candidate, but he has a complicated long-form message, so our strategy was to get that message out there as many ways as we could in its purest form."  - Zach Graumann, Campaign Manager

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Knowing that the campaign needed to reach at least sixty-five thousand unique donors in order to qualify for the debate stage, they set up their NationBuilder site with that threshold as a goal they could consistently and transparently work toward. The next step was to meet people where they were expressing excitement about Yang as a candidate and direct them to the campaign site to make their support official. Interestingly, the place the future Yang Gang happened to be gathering was Reddit. As fans posted memes, Reilly would post links where they could sign up for updates, become volunteers, and start organizing on Yang’s behalf. From there, supporters were tagged based on their origins and interests, then contacted by a corps of fifteen volunteers to help recruit, organize, and boost attendance for upcoming rallies—distributing leadership among the committed supporters in each city. “We’ve ultimately scaled to a point with our tagging infrastructure where we're not just tracking people, we're tracking [distributed] organizations of Yang Gangs in various locations,” Reilly says. “So we're able to email folks now who are entering our volunteer system, funnel them into these different locations, and see how our volunteer outreach has evolved as we've grown.”

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  • Paths & Goals

  • Customers who run their campaign on NationBuilder use trackable paths and goals to turn site visitors into donors.

In-person rallies are now the place where the digital campaign’s impact is most visible. One such rally in San Francisco marked for Graumann the moment it became clear the campaign was truly taking off. “We drove up and we were like, ‘wow, there's a lot of traffic here,’” he says, “and then we realized—‘oh, that's actually because of us!’ We pulled up to the side of the stage and there was just this sea of people.”

Though the campaign still has much ground to cover, they have the benefit of a devoted following who are as committed to spreading the word on the street as they are to sharing it online. Creating this group was an intentional choice by Graumann and the Yang team, right down to its memorable name. Graumann says:

“We wanted something that was not just the name of the volunteers, but part of an identity. I wanted people to say, 'Oh, I'm Yang Gang.' What that does in my opinion is make it so it's not just a meme; it's part of who you are, which therefore means you probably should show up to a rally because it's part of who you are… What's really cool about what we're doing is that though [our engagement] team is three people, we're throwing these 5,000 person rallies with no staff—it's all volunteers. It really is the definition of taking the internet into real life, and that's one of the ways we did it; we empowered our organizers.”

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