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Flush with cash, Yang wrestles with where to spend it

The reality is that his newfound campaign riches are creating internal tension about whether to beef up the Iowa operation or bet it all in New Hampshire. Yang’s strong focus has always been on New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state where he has spent more time than any of the top-tier candidates. The campaign sees…

The reality is that his newfound campaign riches are creating internal tension about whether to beef up the Iowa operation or bet it all in New Hampshire.

Yang’s strong focus has always been on New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state where he has spent more time than any of the top-tier candidates. The campaign sees it as ripe ground for him — Democratic voters relish their independent-streak and showed they were open to non-traditional candidates in the past, delivering Sen. Bernie Sanders a decisive win in the 2016 primary.

Their goal, to date, has been to finish at the top of the second-tier in order to stay relevant after the early-voting states. Suddenly though, with money to play in Iowa as well, there is a vigorous debate about where to spend the cash and Yang’s other precious commodity — his time.

“I think if we overperform expectations will have a very powerful narrative coming out of New Hampshire that people don’t expect us to be at the top four here,” Yang said after wrapping up the final of 14 events during a four-day trip here. “If we break the top four, I think people will see that we have a ton of energy behind us.”

Yang’s $16.5 million — 65 percent more than the previous quarter — placed him fifth in terms of fundraising for the Democratic presidential candidates, about $4.7 million less than Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who came in fourth. He raised almost five times more than Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, another second-tier candidate who has invested so heavily in New Hampshire that she has all but moved here.

Since the money started to flow, Campaign Chief Nick Ryan said they have been staffing up in not only Iowa and New Hampshire but also starting to build out a Super Tuesday organization. But the campaign declined to provide any information about their staffing, including how many people work on the campaign or how many have been hired since the fundraising surge.

Ryan said he sees the opportunity for a larger-than-usual number of candidates to survive past the caucuses, given the nature of the field.

“We are going to have a couple of trips into New Hampshire, but it will be more Iowa than New Hampshire,” he said, adding it is based on the voting calendar.

Staff in New Hampshire want more investment here, including the candidate’s time. Steve Marchand, Yang’s local senior adviser, said he wants the candidate to essentially live here.

“There was a decision made I think that we had to disproportionately invest over the last few months in Iowa in order to make up for the kind of head start in New Hampshire,” Marchand said. “A lot of the focus of that is that it has an impact on the ability to make the debate stage.”

There hasn’t been a poll in the field for more than two weeks in Iowa and more than a month in New Hampshire, making it difficult to tell whether the new investments or his performance in the Dec. 19 nationally-televised debate have moved the needle for him in either state.

But his crowds have noticeably started to look different. At events in the summer and fall, the audience tended to be male and younger — scruffy millennials who knew about him from his interviews on their favorite podcasts. Now there’s a solid mix of gray hair and women in the audience. Several people said in interviews before a town hall at a restaurant here that they were impressed by his recent debate performance.

The campaign calls their supporters the “Yang Gang” and people who are still kicking the tires on his candidacy are “Yang-curious.”

Yang is also becoming a discussion point inside Sanders’ local headquarters, according to those close to his campaign. They see him as a threat, albeit small, in a primary that could be decided by a sliver of votes.

“I think that our bit here is very, very strong,” Yang said. “I think people here in New Hampshire are very independent-minded and they have skepticism that Washington, D.C. career politicians are going to provide the solutions that are going to improve our lives.”

Marchand, who was previously mayor of Portsmouth, one of the state’s largest and most liberal cities, ran for governor in 2018 with the central theme that he was New Hampshire’s Sanders-equivalent. He supported Sanders in 2016.

“We’re definitely getting voters that are peeling off of Bernie,” Marchand said. “They still love these other candidates — that’s not the question — it’s just that they really want to win, and they want somebody that makes them feel really excited about who they’re going to vote for.”

The campaign said the changes they’ve seen are tied to Yang’s performance in the December debate, arguing it is mainly because he got significantly more time to speak with fewer candidates on the stage. His participation in the January is tenuous, as he only has one of the four qualifying polls needed with less than a week left before the deadline.

In New Hampshire, Yang is investing heavily in television to continue to help get his name out, keeping up with the top of the field in terms of spending. Counting the last two months and all booked ads through the end of this month, his campaign will spend more than $2 million here, more than Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden combined. Sanders blows them all out with $3.9 million, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.

There are signs the advertising might be raising his familiarity among voters. At an event at Concord High School on Thursday, several hundred students took a break from classes — though not all voluntarily — to see Yang speak. When he asked how many had seen his ads, almost everyone raised their hands.

Ryan, the campaign chief, said their own internal polling shows Yang on the rise nationally.

“You’re missing any public polling that would reflect that movement,” he said. “A lot of our internal metrics — be it name ID, consideration, likability, as well as our top lines — they are reflecting that once polls go back into the field, we’re going to start seeing some different numbers.”

Yang’s performance here will largely depend on who remains in the second-tier following Iowa a week earlier, according to Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire professor who has authored a book on the state’s primary. Yang will still struggle to pick up enough votes to make it to the top of the second-tier, especially if candidates like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado survive past Iowa, Scala said.

“It’s not enough to have the money, you also have to have the message, and I’m not quite sure how is he going to expand or break out of this niche,” he said.

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