HOLLYWOOD, California—Andrew Yang and his entourage roll up to the El Capitan Theatre about 30 minutes before showtime at Jimmy Kimmel Live! Tuesday night.
Outside on Hollywood Boulevard, enthusiastic members of the #YangGang wear “MATH” hats (for “Make America Think Harder”) and hold up signs that read “What would you do with your Freedom Dividend???” referring to Yang’s signature Universal Basic Income policy initiative that would put $1,000 per month in the pocket of every American.
It’s the late-night show’s last episode before the Thanksgiving break and the Democratic presidential candidate is set to appear as Jimmy Kimmel’s second guest, following actor Laura Dern. “Between Jurassic Park and the 2020 primary, they’re both working to defeat dinosaurs,” the host joked in his monologue.
Kimmel seemed a bit dubious of Yang from the moment he sat down. The host cracked jokes about robots coming to take our jobs and wondered why a non-politician believes he can become the 46th president of the United States. “Why go right for president? Why not start with senator or representative?” Kimmel asked.
Yang argued that automation is happening too fast for him to wait. “Robot trucks may be on our highways in five to 10 years, and I thought biding my time trying to climb the ranks—we just didn’t have that kind of time.”
“I think you have some very interesting ideas,” Kimmel said at the end of their eight-minute sit-down. “I don’t think you’re going to be president, but who knows? Maybe you will! I didn’t think Trump was going to be president either.”
It wasn’t exactly how Yang wanted the interview to end, but at least it was over. “I feel great now,” Yang tells me in his dressing room, sounding relieved after the taping before he has to hop in a cab to LAX. “I have done my lift of the day, a national late-night TV interview.”
Yang seems tired and a bit distracted during our conversation as he watches musical guest Bishop Briggs play quietly on the screen. He perks up when he sees a supporter wearing a “Yang 2020” T-shirt in the crowd. “I actually know this band,” he marvels later.
Asked if he thinks Kimmel was a bit dismissive in his final comments, Yang tells me, “I didn’t think much of it. Right now, statistically, he’s correct. Though I think he is underestimating our chances.” The candidate cites betting markets like Predict It, which currently place him at an 8 percent chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, right behind new entrant Michael Bloomberg at 11.
“That strikes me as the most accurate predictor you could find,” he says. “And if you think about sporting outcomes, how often do 5-to-10 percent outcomes happen in sports? All the time. So Jimmy can be right that I’m unlikely to be president. But it can also be right that I have a far higher chance than almost anyone else and far unlikelier things have happened.”
And yet Yang clearly doesn’t feel as though he’s being treated as, if not a top tier candidate, than at least a major contender. At last week’s fifth Democratic primary debate, hosted by MSNBC in Atlanta, Yang only spoke for a total of six minutes and 48 seconds, about half the speaking time of frontrunners Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
After Yang appeared on CNN to accuse MSNBC of “suppressing” his campaign by asking him fewer direct questions than some candidates who are polling below him nationally, his social media army (the #YangGang) got #BoycottMSNBC trending on Twitter. “I’m not the kind of guy who takes offense easily but at this point you have to call it like you see it,” he told CNN’s Ana Cabrera.
When I ask Yang why he didn’t bring his war on MSNBC to Kimmel’s audience, he says, “I was happy to talk about it if it came up, but it didn’t come up and I could see why he wouldn’t want to bring it up.”
“We laid out very clear and reasonable requests,” he says of his team’s ongoing communications with MSNBC. He sums them up like this: “Own the fact that you’ve made mistakes in our coverage, treat us like any other campaign and allow our surrogates on air like you do other campaigns.”
“To me, it would be the easiest thing in the world for them just to say ‘sure,’” he says. “As a matter of fact, I think eventually they will say ‘sure’ because now they’re left trying to explain why hundreds of thousands of supporters of my campaign are feeling ill-served by their news coverage.”
Yang has said that he would not go on MSNBC again until they issue an on-air apology to his campaign. Now, he says he suspects “at some point” the network will “be professionals” and admit their mistakes. “Then I’ll be on their air talking to voters the next day,” he says.
“If you were generous, you could just say that they didn’t understand my campaign at first,” Yang says. The thing he finds most “off-putting” is that other news organizations that didn’t take him that “seriously” at first eventually “figured out that I’d beaten half a dozen sitting senators and governors and congresspeople and then they started treating me like other candidates.”
“But for whatever reason, MSNBC never made that transition,” he adds, letting out a frustrated laugh. “They’ve treated me like I was a non-factor even after I was objectively fifth or sixth.”
At one point I ask Yang if he thinks MSNBC is the most useful target for a Democratic primary candidate given that Fox News, well, exists.
“I’m not on Fox all the time so I don’t have the basis for comparison,” he says carefully before pivoting back to his preferred target. “All I’m saying is that I’ve been on MSNBC a number of times and they’ve still omitted me from over a dozen graphics, called me the wrong name on air, asked me fewer questions in two debates. So at some point you have to say this is not objective news coverage.”
Still, it’s striking to hear a Democrat be so critical of MSNBC when he has appeared numerous times on Fox News—not exactly a paragon of “objective news coverage.” Asked if he would continue to go on Fox despite his MSNBC boycott, Yang says, “I’ve been on Fox I think a dozen times and I would go back, for sure. I would take any opportunity to talk to Americans.”
Yang’s lack of speaking time at this month’s debate seems to have been the final straw in his relationship with MSNBC. But critics might argue that he spoke less than anyone else because he did not jump into the fray as aggressively and because other candidates did not attack him directly, in turn giving him opportunity for a rebuttal. With December’s Los Angeles debate, co-hosted by PBS and Politico, around the corner, I wondered how he might approach things differently.
“The fact is, my displeasure really just applies to MSNBC,” Yang says. “The debate before, on CNN, I thought was a very fair debate. I got some fair questions. So I’m not concerned at all about this upcoming debate, because it’s a different team.”
As Yang’s campaign manager chimes in to remind him that it’s about “the people,” the candidate slips into talking points, adding, “But it’s less about me and more about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contributed to my campaign who expect me to be treated like other candidates. Or the millions of Americans who know we need to rewrite the rules of the 21st century economy to work for us.”
And, he says, that also applies to “the people who tune into MSNBC and expect to see objective coverage instead of seeing one candidate mysteriously disappear from their graphics.”