Will Andrew Yang Win Any Delegates?

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang walks through a crowd of media after the sixth 2020 Democratic presidential candidates campaign debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., December 19, 2019. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

It will be a tall task for the surprisingly successful outsider candidate, but not an impossible one.

When it comes to beating expectations, Andrew Yang is LeBron James — or, if like Yang you’re a New York Knicks fan, Patrick Ewing. But Yang no doubt would like to do more than beat expectations; he would like to actually win something in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. He’s not likely to win any state outright, but does he have a chance to win some delegates along the way?

Right now, that looks like a tall order. The bad news for Yang is that Democrats have instituted a threshold of 15 percent to win any delegates in just about every state. Sometimes that 15 percent threshold is measured statewide, sometimes it is measured at the congressional-district level, and sometimes it is measured in a mix between the two. But the effect is the same: Yang’s single-digit polling support — while impressive for a man who was completely unknown a year ago, barely gets any attention from debate moderators, and has no previous experience in government — makes winning any delegates difficult.

In Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the Democrats’ 15 percent threshold is enforced at each caucus location, meaning that if after an initial round of vote counting, 15 percent of caucusgoers in a given location don’t list him as their first choice, he will be deemed “non-viable” at that location and his supporters will have to move to their next-favorite candidate. In Iowa, statewide polling doesn’t tell us how many Yang supporters will be at any particular caucus site or whether his support is clustered in a particular region or city. But it’s safe to say this isn’t Yang’s best chance to pick up delegates; he’s currently at 2.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of the state, and while something could change in the coming month, he’s unlikely to hit 15 percent anywhere.

After Iowa, it’s on to New Hampshire, where the rules are complicated but basically amount to the same 15 percent threshold at both the congressional-district and statewide levels. Twenty-four of the state’s 33 delegates to the Democratic National Convention are allocated based on the primary results: 16 based on the results in the state’s two congressional districts, and eight on the primary vote statewide. New Hampshire is definitely a better state for Yang than Iowa is; the RealClearPolitics average has him at 4.7 percent in the Granite State, good for sixth place. The fact that registered independents can vote in the state’s Democratic primary might help him, given his untraditional background and unusual platform. It’s also true that the Iowa caucuses could knock out some other candidates, thinning the field and creating newly uncommitted voters for him to win over. But all that said, hitting that 15 percent threshold will be a tall order for him here, too.

After New Hampshire comes Nevada, which has the same mandatory 15 percent threshold at the congressional-district and statewide levels. There hasn’t been a poll of Nevada since November, but it appears to be another state where Yang’s not quite catching fire — the RCP average has him at 3 percent, good for seventh place. The state’s caucus is also “closed,” meaning that only registered Democrats can participate, which could potentially hurt him. So while the picture will become clearer once the state’s caucus gets closer and more polling is released, things don’t look good for Yang here, either.

The story in South Carolina, which sits fourth on the primary calendar, is similar, with Yang tied for seventh in the RCP average, at 2 percent. The state’s primary is “open,” meaning that anyone who is not voting in another party’s primary may cast a ballot. The state adheres to the same 15 percent threshold for picking up delegates; 35 delegates are allocated based on the results in the state’s seven congressional districts, and 19 are allocated based on the primary vote statewide. Like the states before it, it looks unlikely to yield any delegates for Yang.

Nate Silver notes that because of the states that measure at the district level, the 15 percent threshold “isn’t completely an all-or-nothing proposition; you’ll still get some delegates if you finish a bit below 15 percent, and you’ll still miss out on some if you finish just above 15 percent.” If Yang can get himself to 13 or 14 percent statewide in a given race, or has a concentrated level of support in one district, he could walk away with a delegate or two. Though that may not sound like much, it would be more than a lot of bigger names in this campaign managed to win. On the other hand, if Yang finishes with a series of respectable high-single-digit or even low-double-digit showings in the first four contests and gets zero delegates, he’ll come away with nothing.

The good news is that after the first four states, the odds of Yang’s winning a delegate get a little better. Some states, such as New Jersey and Texas, allocate their delegates based on performance in state legislative districts, which are smaller than congressional districts and therefore easier to hit 15 percent in. And there is the massive, late-voting state of New York. Yang was born in Schenectady, raised in Westchester County, and resides in midtown Manhattan. His family still goes to church in New Paltz. If he is to have an extra advantage anywhere, it should be here, even if the most recent poll of the state, in November, had him at 2 percent.

It’s exceedingly hard to enter politics as an unknown presidential candidate. (A well-known political neophyte can be a different story, as President Trump would attest.) That Yang has managed to win more and more support as better-known, better-funded, more-experienced candidates fall by the wayside is impressive. He’s done a lot right and demonstrated considerable talent against highly touted competition on the biggest stage imaginable. But talent gets you only so far: Though Patrick Ewing is in the Basketball Hall of Fame today, as Yang surely knows, Ewing’s Knicks never managed to win an NBA title.

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