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The Enduring Appeal of a Long-Shot Presidential Candidate

The campaigns of Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson continue on, even as more established Beltway candidates have dropped out of the Democratic primary race

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In October 1992, H. Ross Perot sat behind a long desk and addressed a national television audience of 16.5 million viewers in what amounted to a 30-minute paid political advertisement. Perot’s infomercials are a useful way to remember the late Texas billionaire’s 1992 presidential campaign as an independent candidate. He cultivated enough public favor—ultimately, 18.9 percent of the national popular vote—to earn a seat next to President George H.W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in the presidential debates. In the first debate, Bush and Clinton criticized one another while Perot emphasized his outsider status. “I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt,” Perot said. “I don’t have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else.” In the second debate, Perot famously described the “giant sucking sound” of U.S. companies outsourcing labor to Mexico—and other countries—if the U.S. ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Perot regarded globalization as a uniquely destabilizing force in modern American life. In his infomercials, Perot committed to “balancing the budget” and “reforming government”; crucially, Perot produced a slideshow to patiently explain to his prime-time audience why they should doubt the prevailing economic logic and how he might, as president, reverse the worrisome trends. “We got into trickle-down economics,” Perot said, “and it didn’t trickle.” By 1992, an economic recession had imperiled the nation’s post–Cold War agenda: low taxes, free trade, globalization. Perot was running for president, but he ran so adversarially against the Bush-Clinton consensus about NAFTA as to posit himself as the federal government’s ombudsman.

Despite losing two presidential elections running as an independent—’92 and ’96—Perot has nonetheless endured, in the national political imagination, as a successful candidate in every regard short of winning the nation’s highest office. Perot was a long shot, and he indeed lost, but not before he articulated the postglobalization anxieties which would intermittently define U.S. politics for the next quarter-century.

Last week, Axios published a piece analyzing the media’s coverage of Andrew Yang’s Democratic presidential campaign. Yang, the long-shot candidate and entrepreneur, promises, if elected, to issue a monthly $1,000 stipend—the “Freedom Dividend”—to every American adult. “Despite polling in the top six of the Democratic primary and getting plenty of online attention,” Axios reports, “Yang is being treated by the media like a bottom-tier candidate.”

There are 20 candidates still vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and only three of them—former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—consistently poll above 5 percent. Who isn’t a “bottom-tier” candidate these days? Yang polls at 3 percent, which pales in comparison with the front-runner Biden’s 29 percent. In such a crowded field, however, Yang polls ahead of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Texas wunderkind Beto O’Rourke, and Barack Obama’s former secretary of housing and urban development, Julián Castro. But, Axios reports, Yang struggles to legitimize his campaign among reporters, columnists, and TV producers; the media occasionally puzzles over Yang’s candidacy, but otherwise regards him as a glitch in the attention economy.

It’s tough to account for Yang’s political appeal. The Freedom Dividend is no more provocative than “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal, and it seems no less practical as a policy idea. “It will be illegal to lend or borrow against one’s Dividend,” Yang stipulates, though he struggles to articulate how, exactly, the federal government might enforce such a restriction. The Freedom Dividend is a campaign promise like any other, and Yang offers few additional ideas about how he might spend four years as president. Yang made the cut for the third Democratic presidential primary debate, hosted by ABC News, to be held on Thursday in Houston. Given his sparse performances in the earlier debates, it’s hard to imagine him issuing much insight beyond his signature concerns.

Yang struggles to convert his online popularity into presidential credibility. It’s a mistake to label him as a bottom-tier candidate, though. The real bottom-tier candidates—former representative Joe Sestak; Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam; businessman Tom Steyer—are far more frequently overlooked. Yang seems more like a mid-tier candidate running a bottom-tier campaign; he doesn’t seem to be captivating Iowa caucus-goers any more or less than he’s managed to impress The New York Times. “The press is in unfamiliar territory in covering a candidate from outside the political world who keeps a low profile,” Axios concludes. In a BuzzFeed interview, Yang echoed the Axios assessment. “I think the media feels more comfortable covering politicians who have been part of the establishment for a while rather than candidates who are less traditional and/or new on the scene,” Yang told BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith. It’s a (self-)flattering assessment that hints toward none of Yang’s faults and limitations as a presidential candidate.

Online, Yang excels. In debates, he founders. In general, Yang struggles to present a comprehensive political outlook; “automation is scary” seems like his only idea about U.S. politics. In fairness, he articulates the idea with great discipline and sensible concern: “We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” Yang says in his stump speech. “We’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call-center jobs, fast-food jobs, truck-driving jobs.” The ways Perot once spoke about globalization, Yang now speaks about automation. But he struggles to present his candidacy as something more than an infomercial to tout universal basic income as his modest solution to Trumpism. It’s a book tour thesis masquerading as a presidential campaign.

Author Marianne Williamson, the campaign’s most enigmatic candidate, doesn’t even have an issue like the Freedom Dividend to her credit. There’s little political substance at the core of her candidacy. Instead, Williamson distinguishes herself through whimsical pronouncements and a strange language of compassion. There’s no presidential candidate so impractically and unapologetically inspirational in the self-help sense than Williamson. In the June 2019 debates, Williamson dramatically pledged to “harness love” to defeat Donald Trump in the general election. (Williamson failed to qualify for Thursday’s debate.) Politically, Williamson offers no real improvements to the primary’s left-wing faction, led by Sanders and Warren; nor does Williamson rival moderates like Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former representative John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Ohio representative Tim Ryan, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who was the last candidate polling at zero percent before he withdrew from the race four weeks ago. Williamson, who polls low but fundraises well, forges a quasi-politics revolving largely around her rare and refreshing temperament. If Yang promises to relieve the nation’s workforce, then Williamson promises to relieve the nation’s mood.

There’s no shortage of long shots remaining in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg can seem surprisingly successful in his media engagement despite his low single-digit support in recent polls. He’s even developed a fundraising advantage over his rivals, including Biden. But Buttigieg represents classic Democratic Party ideals and possesses obvious qualifications for a high-profile politician. Yang and Williamson have a unique appeal—they are nothing if not different (in political design) and ambiguous (in political destiny). Williamson exudes an eccentric and strangely graceful charm; Yang presents a youthful, modest, and wonkish persona. They’re not politicians; they’re personalities, and, among the weariest voters, they can only benefit from comparison with the many Beltway archetypes who overpopulate the primary. They’re fun, and their campaigns illustrate the quirkier concerns—so, robots and polarization—which go unresolved in this decade.

Williamson’s proposals are unoriginal and unremarkable, but her temperament is rare; so, too, is Yang’s thoughtful candor. It’s less clear why they—why anyone—should prioritize dispositions over qualifications or, better yet, comprehensive political agendas in the contest to determine who leads the executive branch. Surely, Yang and Williamson understand as much; surely Yang has considered the many ways to fret about robots while advocating for a universal basic income should he fall short of the least plausible option, becoming president of the United States. So when’s the book tour?