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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.


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

Before Andrew Yang started his run for president (and became an internet legend), he was an entrepreneur looking to pave the way for other entrepreneurs. He studied law, went on to create some successful startups, and founded Venture for America (VFA) in 2011, an organization designed to rejuvenate local economies by placing entrepreneurs in cities where they could create new jobs for a new generation. Over the course of VFA’s work training 500 fellows in different cities through 2017, Yang got the idea that would lay the foundation for his presidential platform—the prediction that the threat of automation would grow to displace more jobs than entrepreneurs could possibly create, and that the U.S. government wasn’t equipped to help solve the problem.    

Instead of relying on party-approved talking points, Yang structured his campaign in late 2017 around a fairly radical policy idea: a universal basic income of $1,000 each month for all Americans aged eighteen to sixty-four. As he began to build steam in 2018, he attracted a core of committed grassroots supporters that included Carly Reilly, who is now the campaign’s Finance Director.

On what motivated her to join, she says, “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. 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.’”

Another early adopter was Campaign Manager Zach Graumann, who set about building the kind of digital infrastructure that would sustain the campaign once it hit its stride. The operation’s early days had been powered by a different 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, Graumann says: “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." 

An effective long-form medium for delivering that complex message turned out to be podcasts with a wide and diverse listener base. When Yang spoke as a guest in February on the Joe Rogan Experience, thousands of new fans were powerfully 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.” And with that, the Yang Gang was born.

Word of mouth promotion and viral social media content can only take a candidate so far—Yang’s team needed to translate all that positive energy into donations, volunteer sign-ups, and pledges of support on their campaign website. Knowing that the campaign needed to reach at least sixty-five thousand unique donors in order to qualify for the debate stage, they set that threshold as a goal within NationBuilder 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. 

Unlike traditional presidential campaigns, the place Yang’s supporters 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 group 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.”


Within a year of digital organizing on NationBuilder, Yang’s campaign had raised two million dollars from a base surpassing one hundred thousand individual donors—significantly exceeding the threshold required to enter the first primary debates of the summer. In the lead-up before the debates, in-person rallies became the place where the viral digital campaign made the most visible impact. 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 had much ground to cover, they had the benefit of a devoted following who were as committed to spreading the word on the street as they were to sharing it online. Creating this group was an intentional choice by Graumann and the Yang team, right down to its memorable name. 

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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 to 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.”

The Yang campaign built even more momentum and excitement after the debates began over the summer, as summed up by Campaign Chief Nick Ryan. “We came from this total curiosity to being on the debate stage,” Ryan says. “The second debate, which was at the end of July, we refer to as ‘the coming out party’ because [Yang] was just fantastic on stage, going toe-to-toe with all of the candidates. We'd never seen web traffic like that, but we also had never seen donations at the rate that we were seeing them. Our list growth was incredible, and it felt like as a campaign we had hit this new level of maturity.”

Says the campaign’s Chief Technology Officer, John Elson, of the campaign’s 2019 success, “The thing that just constantly blows me away is that this all started from nothing… If you work in politics for awhile you start to think of political campaigns as these well-oiled extremely corporate machines, and this started from completely the other direction, just a man with a vision who really believed in something and has a solution that speaks to people… Working with those people who were able to bring this movement into being out of nothing, that's what's been surprising and amazing to me.”

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