As a presidential candidate with an outside chance at the 2020 Democratic nomination, becoming a media darling seemed to be Andrew Yang’s primary electoral strategy. He gleefully gnawed on a turkey leg at the Iowa State Fair, pounded milkshakes, and anointed members of the “Yang Gang” with whipped cream. While he didn’t pick up the nomination — or a Cabinet seat, like fellow candidate and conspicuous consumer Pete Buttigieg — it worked in a sense: Undecided voters wanted to have a beer with Yang more than any other candidate, and his main policy proposal, a $1,000-a-month universal basic income, has vastly outshone his candidacy.
Yang has apparently brought the same food-centric playbook to his campaign for New York City mayor; in his launch video, he is seen eating a slice of pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens and a Nathan’s hot dog, ordering at Amy’s Bread, sitting at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and declaring Gray’s Papaya superior to Papaya King. His Twitter account has also featured food photo ops since he officially announced his candidacy on January 13: lunch at Szechuan Mountain House with the Queens borough president. Dinner at Shabu-Tatsu with his wife. Doughnut Plant. The Pickle Guys. At the current rate, a yearlong Yang campaign could singlehandedly save New York City’s restaurant industry from its pandemic-induced demise.
Something about it is working. Each one of Yang’s food pictures gets thousands of engagements as it’s broadcasted to his 1.9 million followers, an audience that far eclipses the followings of his fellow candidates, like former de Blasio aide Maya Wiley (404,600), NYC comptroller Scott Stringer (11,800), and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams (33,000). One post asking for pizza topping advice drew negative remarks because it displayed various Sicilian slices (Real New Yorkers only eat circular pizzas, didn’t you know?), but successfully lured in one of his competitors. “Pepperoni!!!” replied Wiley.
“He is the internet candidate,” says Erick Sanchez, who was Yang’s traveling press secretary during his presidential run. “He understands how to leverage it, he understands how to use it, and especially in an ever-evolving media landscape that’s trending digital, I think that’s a really good thing.”
This kind of scripted signaling is a staple of virtually every political campaign, but it’s an especially key feature of the presidential nominating contest of which Yang is a veteran. Every four years, candidates from all over the country parachute into the early nominating states and try to appeal to voters as efficiently as possible, LARPing relatability and authenticity through the ritualized scarfing down of pork tenderloins and shaking of hands at diners. Much of this is for the cameras, and offering the traveling press corps an easy reference to a successful campaign from years past — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton also ate here en route to the White House! — has a lot of appeal for a campaign staff trying to break up the monotony of the stump. But it’s a sign of respect to the locals, too. I can hang with you.
But the stagecraft for performing in front of a national audience does not necessarily translate to local politics, or at least New York City politics, as Yang has discovered in the first week of his mayoral campaign. A video posted just two days into his candidacy depicting him shopping in a well-lit and spacious bodega — or was it? — seemed harmless enough. But then the replies started rolling in on Twitter.
“Dear Mr Yang, you’re in, what NYers call, a grocery store/supermarket,” responded actress Ellen Barkin.
“Who’s going to tell him?” asked State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who represents Corona, Queens.
Another commenter didn’t mince words: “bruh this ain’t no bodega this a whole ass supermarket”.
A sheepish Yang replied after thousands of people had logged on to dunk on him. “Haha I love New York,” he wrote, with a smiley face.
In addition to the “bodega discourse,” the video — filmed at 7 Brothers Famous Deli in Hells Kitchen — was roundly criticized for being awkward, cringey, and pandering. “It wasn’t about whether it was a deli or bodega, it just seemed phony,” says Eric Phillips, who from June 2016 until April 2019 served as press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had his own food-related foibles while eating pizza with a fork and knife and failing to use chopsticks correctly. “New Yorkers take food and phoniness very seriously. So you can’t, as staff members, try to overscript those things. They’ve got to be authentic.”
Yang’s national-style campaigning, meant to prove that he is a Real New Yorker, has opened him up to the charge that he isn’t one, despite living in the city for more than two decades. “We welcome Andrew Yang to the mayor’s race — and to New York City,” Scott Stringer’s campaign spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said in a statement.
In a New York City mayoral race, most leading candidates for the job have decades-long track records in city government and don’t necessarily need to signal residency; retail stops take the form of participation in the West Indian Day parade or a breakfast with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s. There is no traveling press to appease, only the union leaders who influence the large blocs of voters that reliably vote in the primaries. Indeed, New York City’s vaunted press corps has thus far not taken the bait, instead hammering Yang’s move upstate during the peak of the pandemic and, perhaps even more damning, a voting record that shows he skipped out on every mayoral election since the mid-’90s, including pivotal ones immediately after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
“There’s no honeymoon period with the New York City press corps — you go straight from your wedding night to divorce court,” says Phillips. “It produces better local politics and local elected officials, but it also serves as the big leagues for reporters at the top of their game. I think the aggressiveness of the New York City press corps just reflects the aggressiveness of most New Yorkers.”
“We in the New York press, we have a reputation for being tough, and a lot of us are interested in maintaining that reputation and not being easy on these candidates,” says Jeff Coltin, a political reporter for City & State who tweeted about the plethora of hot dogs in Yang’s launch video, but spent his first article about the campaign digging into Yang’s watered-down basic-income proposal, which maths out to $167 a month to the neediest 6 percent of New Yorkers. “If somebody wants to be mayor of the greatest city in the world, then they need to answer for everything.”
The Yang mayoral campaign may have had a bumpy start, but there’s a school of thought that all press is good press, and that taking up airtime deprives your opponents of coverage. In the presidential race, that strategy could only get Yang so far before the name recognition of candidates like Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders overtook him. But in a race where he already held a small lead in the polls before he even announced his candidacy? It just might work. “People are talking about him in a crowded field; that’s the coin of the realm, you know?” says Philips. “I think what you’re going to see is other campaigns follow his lead, frankly.”
“Of course, there’s a possibility for anyone to win this, especially someone like Andrew Yang just sucking the oxygen out and just being the constant news person, and he just wins on that,” says a City Hall reporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“He’s eating his way to Gracie Mansion,” Coltin says. “I hope he does keep it up. It’s fun to watch and enjoyable as a New Yorker.”
But that will have to wait. The perils of retail campaigning in the middle of a pandemic hit home for Yang on Tuesday when a staffer tested positive COVID-19. The candidate has announced that he will quarantine and limit himself to remote events, meaning he’ll have to stick to tweeting pictures of delivery and takeout — just like the rest of us.
Gary He is a photojournalist based in New York City. He won a James Beard award for his food-focused coverage of the 2019 Democratic presidential primaries.