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Behind the curtain of Andrew Yang’s crazy, totally novel debate prep session

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s novel approach has made him an internet celebrity candidate and, remarkably, propelled him to sixth place in the crowded 2020 presidential race. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

2020 Elections

The entrepreneur brings his outside-the-box method to a well-worn political exercise.

For the #YangGang, the first rule of debate club is you do not talk about debate club. “You all signed an NDA,” they’re warned. The second rule is “no phones, no phones, no phones, no phones.” And the third rule is to cheer loudly for every candidate — except Andrew Yang.

Those were the edicts that the Yang supporters agreed to last week to witness the most theatrical mock debate of this election cycle. Rather than relying on aides or other politicians to play his opponents, as is customary, the offbeat, web-savvy 44-year-old outsider hired a cast of real actors and actresses to put him through the wringer for two-and-a-half hours at the Signature Theatre in Manhattan.

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Yang invited a few dozen of his donors to play the audience, and they were instructed to treat the candidate like he had no business being on a presidential debate stage. “You’re not Yang Gang right now. You’re a DNC donor, a longtime DNC donor that just wishes we’d all shut up and have Biden as our president right now,” a campaign aide instructed the audience.

To Yang’s right, Kamala Harris’ impersonator, wearing a sharp black jacket and pearls, imitated the former attorney general’s prosecutorial style, waving her signature pointed finger to prosecute her case. To Yang’s left, the Beto O’Rourke performer mimicked the former congressman’s straining, hoarse speech with thumb-on-fist flourishes.

Cory Booker’s understudy, who was white, gave a stirring rendition of the senator’s sermonizing tone. The actor with the stage name Bernie Sanders waved his arms wildly and spoke with a passable Brooklyn timbre, but had a nicer suit and flashier tie. Joe Biden’s performer broke character with his crisp diction.

And Yang, the real one, didn’t wear a tie.

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The campaign pushed him outside his comfort zone. Instead of softball questions on his signature issue — a universal basic income to help society weather the brunt of job automation — Yang was pressed on Medicare for All, Chinese tariffs, mandatory gun buybacks, and Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

Despite the rules, the crowd slipped in some applause for Yang when he concluded his gun control answer. “The fact is that we all know 96 percent-plus of these shooters are boys and men. So we need to try and invest in schools that actually have a place for boys to become men, and not become dangerous to our society over time.”

The debate prep session, to which POLITICO was granted exclusive media access, was just the latest example of the Yang’s unconventional campaign. His novel approach has made him an internet celebrity candidate and, remarkably, propelled him to sixth place in the crowded 2020 presidential race, surpassing a host of more traditionally-credentialed politicians who do this for a living.

After a middling performance in the first debate, Yang and his team brought in new advisers to rethink their approach for the second one in late July. Part of that was a comprehensive dry-run that included local professional performers from places like Roundabout Theatre. It was a more rigorous form of practice for the first-time candidate. The team also had Yang spend a half-hour ahead of time in a make-shift green room, turned the stage lights bright and the audience lights low, and made Yang remain standing throughout.

The campaign also instructed the audience beforehand to be hostile.

Yang’s aides say they made a mistake before the second debate in trying to make Yang follow a more typical politician’s script by delivering “forced sound bites.” The immersive mock session left the candidate more frustrated than aides had ever seen him.

“Yang came in, and he’s not a big yeller, but he came in ripping me and totally fired up: ‘Y’all are trying to make me a politician,’” recalled one official. “And realistically, we were, we were trying to make the dog quack like a duck.”

The failed practice session led Yang and his campaign to change course and embrace a break-the-fourth-wall approach.

“What that first mock made clear is we were going to be unsuccessful turning Yang into a politician,” said a top aide brought in after the first debate. “We needed to let Yang be Yang. As a Washington hack that was terrifying. As a Democratic primary voter it is exhilarating.”

Yang agrees that the intricate dress rehearsal helped him find his mojo. “The first time I saw it as a debate and the second time I saw it more as a distributed media occurrence across 10 candidates” — essentially, a chance to speak directly to supporters and potential supporters watching on TV or clips online, Yang said in a brief interview after the latest debate prep.

He added that the prep sessions have helped. “When you actually go through something that’s a simulation,” Yang said, “it ends up honing your approach, and putting you in a position where when it’s actual debate night, and you get up there, then it seems more familiar and comfortable.”

In the 48 hours around the second debate, aides said Yang raised more than he had the previous month (they say they’re currently on pace to double their second quarter total). He received one of the biggest polling bounces in the field, helping him to qualify for the September and October debates. His “MATH” hats (“Make America Think Harder”) are selling strong, aides say, with over 8,000 ordered since the debate.

The Yang campaign is closely holding most of their debate strategy. It’s even unclear whether Yang will go sans tie again. A campaign official said they had previously discussed wearing a bow-tie to troll the people who mocked his past sartorial choices.

Thursday night offers Yang an opportunity to catapult himself into the upper-tier of candidates or remain relegated to low single digits. He seems confident it will be the former. And his campaign is signaling that viewers will see something they’ve never seen before in a presidential debate.

“You know in my last answer at the last debate, I talked about how it’s a reality TV show and now I understand my role in the show,” Yang said after the prep session.

He then added, with some mischief: “And I’m going to become the star.”

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