Andrew Yang isn't traditionally 'presidential.' Why his supporters love it and how race may factor in

How his relatable revelry is a double-edged sword.
Image: Andrew Yang at the 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, N.H.
Andrew Yang, at the 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2020.Scott Olson / Getty Images

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By Benjamin Pu and Julia Jester

Between the crowdsurfing, the axe throwing, the dancing and the spraying whipped cream into supporters’ mouths, Andrew Yang is having fun on the campaign trail.

But his relatable revelry is a double-edged sword — the same fun that endears Yang to supporters and attracts online attention also opens him up to criticism that he is not taking campaigning seriously and isn’t acting “presidential.”

Yet for those who see him on the trail in the early primary and caucus states, Yang is not a joke. NBC News spoke to dozens of voters at Yang events in Iowa and New Hampshire and found that many see the candid, joking Yang as personable and relatable.

“Well, that's my personality sort of reflected with me,” said Andrew Chang, 30, of Waverly, Iowa. “That's kind of how I break the ice, and so I really appreciate it.”

Many potential voters told NBC News that the self-deprecating humor and Yang’s descriptions of himself as “the futurist Asian man who likes math” humanize a presidential candidate in ways they haven’t seen before.

Yang has no political experience and has never held elected office, but voters describe him as intelligent and data-driven and believe that he will be able to seriously conduct himself on the world stage.

In an interview, Yang paused when asked why people across the country can relate to him, even though he's a millionaire businessman from New York. To him, it’s not about the antics.

“I grew up in a town where it was always a struggle, as a kid, to feel like I fit in,” Yang said slowly. “And I imbibed American culture very, very deeply. I'm very happy if Americans feel like I'm a normal guy, because that's kind of the way I think about myself.”

“I've been very fortunate in many aspects of my life and career,” Yang added. “But I generally don't think of myself as that different from the skinny Asian son of immigrants I was when I was growing up in upstate New York, or from everyday Americans just trying to make ends meet and make life better for themselves and their kids.”

“I feel like when I was growing up, I always felt like I was the kid left out,” Yang said. “And you never forget that feeling. And so who's left out in America today?”

The term “presidential” has been redefined

At a Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, in August, Yang was asked emotional questions about gun violence, causing him to cry.

It quickly became a viral moment of a presidential candidate demonstrating empathy and emotion. Shortly after, a different -- and less presidential-- Yang met reporters backstage.

Yang talked about a turkey leg he ate at the fair, adding he needs to mind his eating habits because “no one wants a president who doesn’t seem like he can run a mile.”

“What could that guy beat me at, being a slob?” he said of President Donald Trump. “Like what could Donald Trump possibly be better than me at? An eating contest.”

During a recent 17-day bus tour through Iowa, Yang joked about former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s weight, jumped down from a height and joked, “Let’s see Bernie do that!”, and told canvassers to knock unwilling caucusgoers unconscious and “drag their body” to a precinct.

When asked in New Hampshire if he was worried that voters would see his behavior as “unpresidential,” Yang dismissed the concerns.

“I think most Americans recognize that you're on the trail for months and months and that you make humorous comments, and that people in the room enjoy and get a kick out of it,” Yang said. “That most people understand that each of those particular jokes was just that, and that anyone who is there takes it in a very positive context.”

Yang ended up placing a disappointing sixth in the Iowa caucuses last week, garnering around 1 percent of the state delegate equivalents. His campaign fired dozens of staffers shortly afterward, by email.

In 2016, candidate Trump was also deemed “unpresidential.” Al Charlson, 72, the chair of the Iowa Bremmer County Democrats, notes that with Trump now in office, the standards for how candidates should behave on the trail have changed.

“After the last couple of years, the term ‘acting presidential’ has taken on such a broad spectrum that I don't even know how to define it,” Charlson said. “[Yang] probably hasn't adopted some of the norms that you would see from a candidate who's maybe been active in political life and in office for a number of years. So he's going to come across a little bit differently, but it’s not an issue.”

“He doesn’t talk down to you”

Rockingham County Democratic Chair Larry Drake said Yang seems to have the most ideologically diverse following in New Hampshire.

“When I go to his events, it’s not the usual suspects I see,” he said. “He’s bringing in young people, former Trump supporters and others. That’s not your usual support for a candidate.”

That Yang is unembarrassed to appear silly at times does not make his policies or positions any less serious to his supporters.

“It doesn't matter to me and I don't see it as lowering the bar,” said Alan Mayer, 29, of Allison, Iowa. “I see it as somebody that was with the people a lot more, and that makes more sense, in my opinion, rather than somebody that was already at D.C. for 20 years.”

Austin Albro, a former Trump supporter from Hudson, New Hampshire, noted how Yang’s simple messaging attracts voters from across the political spectrum.

“He is authentic and hilarious -- refreshing,” Albro said. “He’s the opposite of the bully mentality that is consuming politics.”

Balancing humor and the pressure of representation

Though Yang has faced criticism for playing into Asian American stereotypes, Terry Schneekloth, 50, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is not put off by his cultural humor.

“He's had some backlash on the fact that he sort of uses his Asian heritage as humor, and that doesn't bother me,” he said. “He's not slandering anybody or anything like that. He's trying to be inclusive but also having a good time while doing it.”

Natalie Masuoka, a political scientist at UCLA who studies Asian American politics, says it is important to recognize how rare it is to see candidates of color running at the top of the ticket -- and the inherent obligation that comes with that.

“I think we would hope that any candidate of color that is running, part of what that responsibility they hold to the United States is really to help educate the public,” she said. “So we hope that as Yang continues to be a candidate in this race, that ideally there's a lot more care, in terms of thinking about the use of stereotypes in someone's campaign.”

She points out that people of color may often feel pulled in several directions with regard to how they present themselves -- perhaps wanting to express oneself one way, but also feeling the weight of representation.

“This could help communicate the type of duality that people of color face in this country,” Masuoka said. “Which is on the one hand you want to be yourself, but on the other hand, you are really trying to deal with the fact that people are applying specific assumptions about who you are.”

Maura Barrett and Micki Fahner contributed.