vision 2020

Why Hasn’t Cory Booker Broken Through?

Running out of time. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Cory Booker had an excellent debate Wednesday night, but his anemic poll numbers mean he’s increasingly unlikely to be back onstage in December. I spoke with political columnist Jonathan Chait and staff writer Zak Cheney-Rice to try to figure out the root of Booker’s struggles.

Ben: Jordan Weissmann wrote at Slate on Thursday, “After almost every Democratic presidential debate, I’ve found myself asking some version of the same nagging question: Why don’t more people want to vote for Cory Booker?” Booker, Weissmann notes, can come off as corny and will never be truly loved by the left because of his corporate ties and charter-school-supporting past. But he boasts considerable credentials as a candidate: his longtime work on criminal-justice reform, his sometimes-successful effort to transform Newark as mayor, his intelligence. (Like Pete Buttigieg, he’s a Rhodes Scholar.) Yet Booker is polling only at about 2 percent nationally, and there is little indication that he’ll even qualify for the next debate in December. Why aren’t Democrats worried about the party’s leftward swing even taking a flyer on him?

Jon: I’ve seen so many people register this view. The flip answer is that the only press coverage of Booker is about why other people don’t support him. But mainly, Biden has locked down the center-left vote.

Zak: I think he exists at an unfortunate (for him) nexus of anxieties for primary voters. The left doesn’t like him, even though he’s ideologically to the left of most moderates in the field, and moderates who prize electability are probably dead set on the notion that a white candidate with demonstrable appeal to more conservative voters is the better bet. This makes his lane a little muddy. Even the majority of black voters — who, because he’s black, are presumed to be his natural core constituency — want someone they’re fairly certain can and will win.

Jon: Yeah, Booker never really pitched an electability story. And, as you say, people who assume you need to be white to be electable wouldn’t grant him that presumption.

But the odd thing to me is that a basic heuristic would be to look at the last Democrat to win and find somebody who resembles him. By superficial measures, that’s Booker, right?

Zak: By very superficial measures, yeah. He’s a youngish black Ivy League grad who cut his political teeth in a very black city, and has a “Hope”-esque message and what can probably be described as the kind of celebrity quality that drew a lot of people to Obama (albeit a very poor man’s version of it). I think what’s working against him is that he’s been in politics long enough for a fair number of people to have soured on him — my feeling is that he may have missed his window for an Obama-type breakout by a few years and a couple of elections. Add that to the fact that current political circumstances are working against him, for the reasons we outlined above. And then there are the somewhat less tangible factors that make him clearly different: A lot of people read him as insincere where Obama’s sincerity was almost never in doubt. Plus, Obama was by any measure just an incredible communicator and politician. I recently interviewed someone who made the point that Obama would’ve been a special figure even if he were white, and I agree.

Jon: I agree Obama is a unique performer/communicator. But Booker is pretty charismatic, too! At least that’s the premise of every “Why don’t more people vote Booker?” piece.

Ben: With the field still quite unsettled at this late date, could Booker still make a push? And should he be emphasizing the electability argument that you mentioned earlier?

Jon: I do think so, and keep saying there’s more room for wild swings than people usually think. If Mayor Pete gets taken apart at the next debate, it could open a new lane.

Zak: By almost any measure, it’s going to be hard for another black candidate to get elected after Trump. Black voters were pretty all-in on Hillary in ’08 before Obama proved that he could compete in the (very white) early states, and I think a big part of that reticence and that calculation is the specter of GOP governance, and what can be done to avoid it. And that was before the American electorate proved itself very capable of, and willing to, elect a white nationalist to the White House! I’d be pretty cautious and skeptical, as a voter, as well. So, unless Cory has an extremely compelling argument for why he can replicate that type of win under what appear to be even more hostile circumstances, and Biden/Buttigieg totally implode, I don’t see it happening, at least coming from the polling deficit he’s currently operating with. But wild swings aren’t out of the question. I wouldn’t presume to count Cory out with any real degree of certainty.

Jon: You’re bringing up something that has had me wondering for a while. I wrote a book about Obama’s presidency, and when it came out, I noticed everybody who dismissed it came from the perspective that Trump had defeated Obama. Sometimes they said this explicitly, sometimes implicitly. But I wonder if Trump’s win made Democrats assume that Obama didn’t “really” win two elections, and that they needed to look elsewhere for a model of success. I just saw so much of this floating around.

To be more precise, I saw this from ideologically motivated critics of Obama from the right and left, but you’re making me wonder if Obama’s supporters also came to believe this. White and black Obama supporters alike, perhaps.

Zak: I think there’s a probably more accurate analysis that falls short of that one’s excesses (Obama did, after all, literally win! Twice!) that says Obama was special to the point of aberration, just as a pol and a writer/speaker/overall communicator; that he was elected under pretty specific circumstances that had no precedent in U.S. history; and that Trump is bad enough that nobody wants to get cute and test whether those circumstances can be replicated. Which I think is fair. Obama had never happened until Obama happened. But I also think it’s important to not go too hard playing the Booker-Obama comparison game. Like, superficial parallels aside, they are different. And Booker is on the losing end of that comparison by almost any measure.

Ben: So you’re saying there’s a chance.

Jon: If we want a debate, I guess I need to take a stronger view in opposition. Booker is absolutely going to win this thing. You’re sadly in denial as his master plan slowly unfolds.

Zak: Haha. Maybe primary voters will come up with a different cost-benefit analysis than the one I laid out in the coming weeks.

Why Hasn’t Cory Booker Broken Through?