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Andrew Yang’s big debate surprise: give 10 people $1,000 a month for a year

Yang said with the money Americans will be able to solve their problems “better than any politician” could.

Andrew Yang at the September 2019 Democratic presidential debate.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang promised to spice up Thursday’s primary debate by doing “something no presidential candidate has ever done before in history” live on television.

He kept that promise by announcing in his opening statement that he would give away $1,000 a month — $120,000 a year — to 10 randomly selected families as part of a pilot program for his universal basic income proposal.

“It’s time to trust ourselves more than politicians,” Yang said. “My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to ten American families, someone watching this at home right now.”

He went on to tell all viewers who “believe you can solve your problems better than any politician” to visit his website to sign up for a chance to receive the money.

The move fits in with Yang’s unique approach to campaigning, one that began with him appearing on podcasts like the one hosted by comedian and former television host Joe Rogan, and in the videos of YouTubers like the Fung Bros, and that has more recently included weekly Twitter campaigns and crowdsurfing. Simply put, Yang campaigns in his own way, and seems to have a lot of fun while doing so:

A universal basic income proposal is a central part of Yang’s campaign. The idea is for the government to give a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 per month to every American over the age of 18. And it showed everyone watching — some of whom were introduced to the candidate for the first time — that Yang believes in the idea so much that he’s willing to put real money behind it.

The Yang campaign built anticipation about the reveal for days

Yang began teasing the announcement the Tuesday before the debate. The Daily Beast and MSNBC’s Sam Stein tweeted he was contacted by the campaign and told, “at tomorrow night’s debate, Yang will be doing ‘something no presidential candidate has ever done before in history.’”

A campaign aide told Vox “people will be shocked” by the unprecedented action, but refused to go into detail as to why. The candidate’s followers speculated about what Yang would do, and the entrepreneur himself got in on the fun:

In the end, the reveal was indeed unprecedented, although not overly shocking, given Yang’s idiosyncratic approach to the campaign trail.

Andrew Yang’s campaign centers on a universal basic income

Like his rival Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang has released a lot of plans. He has over 100, and they address a wide range of issues, from eliminating the penny to creating a pathway towards citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The plan that has captured the most attention, and that has become the centerpiece of Yang’s campaign, however, is his proposal for a universal basic income, which the candidate refers to as a “freedom dividend.” As Vox’s Sigal Samuel explained, it would work like this:

Yang says that if he becomes president, the government will send a check for $1,000 per month ($12,000 annually) to every American adult above the age of 18. (Whether Congress cooperates is another matter.) Again, no strings attached: You don’t get less money if you score a high-paying job, for example. And if you’re already getting housing assistance or food stamps, you can choose between keeping your current setup and switching over to Yang’s UBI program.

That money has been a big draw for Yang’s loyal followers, who have dubbed themselves the “Yang Gang.” UBI features heavily in the Gang’s online discussions about Yang’s virtues, in the countless memes the group has made, and in songs about the candidate, like the one that proclaims “Yang bucks trickle up.”

As a campaign aide told Vox ahead of the debate, Yang sees his version of UBI as being about “everything but the money.” The candidate argues that it is actually a tool Americans can use to combat growing automation and help spur homeownership, empower budding entrepreneurs, and reduce stress caused by financial insecurity.

To prove his point, Yang points to UBI pilot programs in places like Stockton, California, and to the annual oil dividend every Alaskan receives. He has also begun testing his version of UBI on a small scale, giving $1,000 a month of his own money to families in early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire. In June, he announced the winner of a Twitter contest would be joining those families.

As Sigal explained, all of this is perfectly legal:

Yang’s contest doesn’t appear to violate any campaign finance laws. The rules make it clear that you don’t need to donate a cent to his campaign in order to be eligible. Nor is Yang bribing people to vote for him; the winner can vote for any candidate. Since the purpose behind the payout appears to be making a point about policy, it’s not illegal, Erin Chlopak, a former Federal Election Commission attorney, explained to MarketWatch. And the Freedom Dividend will reportedly come from Yang’s own bank account, so it’s considered a personal gift.

His latest giveaway similarly seems to be within election rules; experts are unsure whether the move will ultimately be allowed, however. Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine professor of law and political science, tweeted that it should be, as long as no restrictions are placed on who can get the money, as it would count as a creative form of campaign advertising. On the other hand, a former FEC commissioner told NBC’s Benjy Sarlin that the dividend would count as a gift, and that giving gifts breaks FEC rules.

Even if Yang’s newest pilot fails to be cleared by officials, the announcement alone will certainly energize the universal basic income fans out there — and get him a lot of free press.

Yang’s surprise helped him drive a media he has sometimes criticized

For a lesser-known candidate, Yang has been doing okay in polls: He qualified for the September debate, something half of his rivals (including better established ones like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard) failed to do. His RealClearPolitics average, even at 3 percent, puts him ahead of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Sen. Cory Booker. And a recent Emerson poll found him trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden in hypothetical head-to-head matchups between Democratic candidates and President Donald Trump — the results showed Yang beating Trump by 8 points.

But supporters argue that despite this, Yang has been purposely sidelined by the media. As Vox’s Emily Stewart explained, this frustration has led Yang fans to start several social media campaigns on his behalf, including #LetYangSpeak (after Yang said he wasn’t always able to interject during the first debate because his microphone was often switched off) and #YangMediaBlackout (after CNN forgot to include Yang on a graphic showing the candidates at the top of current polls).

Yang has pointed out some of these errors and oversights himself, like an MSNBC chyron that seems to have gotten his name wrong:

As Stewart wrote, while there is probably not some campaign at the heights of media to discredit or disregard Yang, those who feel he has not received the same level of attention as Warren are probably onto something:

The media can be at times more inclined to cover the candidates they know better and reinforce their preconceived narratives about the race. In the case of the CNN graphic that sparked this week’s #YangMediaBlackout hashtag, O’Rourke, who ran a highly publicized Senate campaign in 2018, was expected to do better than Yang and a lot of people in the polls. He hasn’t. He also has more name recognition than Yang, at least in the political sphere.

In hyping the surprise and rolling it out during the debate, Yang has effectively taken control of a media his supporters sometimes say is against him. The media blitz by his team ahead of the debate has piqued interest, leading to this article, and many others like it. And by springing the surprise during the debate, Yang has ensured not only attention leading up to it, but that his name would be correct and that he would be able to have a moment of his own while on stage with his party’s frontrunners.

So even though people might not be “shocked” by what unfolded tonight, they have been — and will be — talking about it, and Yang, in the hours to come — something that could help the candidate build on his already solid base of support.