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If you visit the online betting market PredictIt, you’ll see a long list of 2020 Democratic candidates, ranked in order of their odds of winning the party’s nomination for president, according to the site’s users.
Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Senator Bernie Sanders top the list. Then come other well-known Democrats: Senator Kamala Harris, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Wait, hang on a minute. Andrew Yang?
This is not an algorithm glitch, it turns out. Mr. Yang, 44, an entrepreneur and a political neophyte running on the idea that the United States should provide a universal basic income, is popping up in unexpected places in the Democratic contest.
He has catapulted out of obscurity thanks in part to a devoted internet following known as the “Yang Gang.” His fans have plastered Mr. Yang into memes and produced songs and music videos about his candidacy. They have also created a hashtaggable slogan — #securethebag — out of his signature campaign proposal to give $12,000 a year in no-strings-attached cash to every American adult, as a cushion against the mass unemployment he believes is coming thanks to artificial intelligence and automation.
By conventional standards, Mr. Yang remains a fringe candidate. In national polls, his support among Democrats has registered between 0 and 1 percent. But his viral popularity on social media feels reminiscent of the “meme army” that helped lift President Trump to victory in 2016. WikiLeaks, itself a part of the internet’s political underbelly, recently took note of Mr. Yang’s online momentum, and asked, “Did Trump just lose the 2020 meme war?”
“It’s very … interesting becoming the internet candidate,” Mr. Yang said last week in an interview while he was on his way to a rally in San Francisco. “I’m getting support from quarters I wouldn’t have expected.”
A lot has changed for Mr. Yang since I profiled him a year ago. At the time, he was best known as a businessman who had sold his test-prep company to Kaplan before starting Venture for America, a nonprofit entrepreneurship organization for college graduates. He was entering the race with little name recognition, a nonexistent war chest and a quirky platform centered on his claim of an impending robot apocalypse.
To ease the pain, he proposed what he called the “Freedom Dividend,” a $1,000-a-month basic income that would be paid to every American adult, regardless of income or employment status.
In lieu of cable news appearances and huge rallies, Mr. Yang took his fledgling campaign on the podcast circuit. He appeared with Ezra Klein of Vox and Sam Harris, the author and host of the popular “Making Sense” podcast. Last month, he was interviewed for two hours by Joe Rogan, a stand-up comedian whose podcast reaches an audience of many millions of people.
After he appeared on Mr. Rogan’s show, his campaign experienced an influx of support, and it quickly reached the 65,000 individual donations required by the Democratic National Committee for inclusion in the first televised debates. Since the interview aired, he has raised more than $1 million.
“I kept waiting for things to subside,” he told me. “And then it never did.”
Other candidates have become internet phenomena before. In 2016, Mr. Sanders’s campaign first took off on sites like Reddit and Facebook among young progressives who set out to make him internet-famous. (One such group, Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, still has more than 400,000 members.) And Mr. Trump, who benefited from a surge among young, internet-savvy supporters early in his campaign, has been attentive to the internet’s rightmost fringes.
Mr. Yang’s campaign feels different, though, in that it reflects the fractured nature of the modern internet. It has attracted economic wonks, tech-skeptic progressives, right-wing bigots, members of the so-called intellectual dark web and an assortment of half-serious trolls. (At times, watching the Yang Gang at work can feel like the political equivalent of the “Boaty McBoatface” episode — a group of bored internet mischief makers seeing how far they can push a joke.)
“There’s a sect of people who congregate online who view politics as almost a pointless exercise,” said Neeraj K. Agrawal, a communications director at a cryptocurrency-focused nonprofit, when asked to explain Mr. Yang’s appeal. “I think, in that context, elections and campaigns might as well be hilarious.”
Some of Mr. Yang’s online support has been the kind he would rather not have. His candidacy has become an obsession on the politics forum on 4Chan, a message board known for the virulently racist and sexist views of its users, who call his basic income proposal “YangBux.”
Several prominent white nationalists, including Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, have also signaled their support for Mr. Yang, who they believe shares their concern for the fate of the white race. In a tweet, Mr. Spencer called Mr. Yang “the most grounded presidential candidate of my lifetime.”
“It’s uncomfortable,” Mr. Yang, a son of immigrants, said of his campaign’s being embraced by the internet’s far-right fringe. “They’re antithetical to everything I stand for.”
You can’t control the internet, of course. But Mr. Yang may be able to repel some of his most objectionable right-wing supporters by emphasizing his progressive policy positions. He has broadened his platform to include issues like marijuana legalization and Puerto Rican statehood (he supports both) as well as more obscure subjects like marketing robocalls and circumcision (he opposes both).
He is also playing along eagerly with his tamer online fans, retweeting their memes and egging them on with joke policy proposals like a “canine dividend,” which would give every American household 1,000 dogs a month.
Mr. Yang’s rush of online support has earned him the attention of major media outlets, and has led to a series of TV appearances. (“The ratio of days I have makeup on is getting higher,” he recently tweeted.) But mainstream Democrats don’t seem intimidated yet.
“We are quick to forget that online support is loudest among die-hards and is not representative of voters,” said Andrew Bleeker, the president of the Democratic communications firm Bully Pulpit Interactive and a former adviser to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on digital strategy.
Still, some people who have noticed Mr. Yang’s rise on social media have cited his enthusiastic fan base — and the fact that nobody saw Mr. Trump coming, either — as proof that it’s too early to write anyone off.
“There’s a vacuum on the left for people like Yang who view the internet as a primary and not secondary medium for audience building,” said Elizabeth Spiers, a Democratic political consultant and a former editor of Gawker.
But there is a difference between building an online audience and running a successful campaign for president.
“The challenge he faces is how to take the enthusiasm and energy he’s getting on social media and elsewhere and turn it into action,” said Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which helps train candidates to run for political office.
Mr. Yang is not resting on his internet laurels. He has set new a goal of raising 200,000 individual donations by June, and he is planning a series of rallies in Chicago, New York and other cities later in the spring.
He said he was also exploring the possibility of having a lifelike 3-D hologram made of himself that could be carried around battleground states like Iowa on the back of a flatbed truck, allowing Mr. Yang to give a recorded version of his stump speech without being physically present.
“It’s a way for me to be in two places at once,” he said.
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