One of the abiding mysteries of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest is why New Jersey senator Cory Booker has never emerged as a serious threat to the many people running ahead of him in the polls. It’s not that he’s made any big mistakes. He has probably been the most consistently solid performer in the four rounds of candidate debates. He’s followed the book in building a formidable organization in Iowa. And as Michelle Goldberg noted back in August, he’s just a great candidate on paper:
If you were cooking up a candidate in a lab to take on Donald Trump, you might come up with someone a lot like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. (Well, except for the unmarried vegan part.) Like Pete Buttigieg, Booker was a Rhodes scholar and the dynamic mayor of a city afflicted by industrial decline, and unlike Buttigieg, he’d be sure to increase African-American turnout. He’s more talented than Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke at summoning an inspiring and unifying civic gospel. His criminal-justice record is better than Kamala Harris’s. He is near the top of Greenpeace’s ranking of Democratic presidential candidates on environmental issues, behind only Jay Inslee and Kirsten Gillibrand.
He’s famously good at retail politics, and as Goldberg puts it, “his ebullient theatrical streak” seems appropriate for a crowded primary competition to face a “carnival barker” like Donald Trump. And he’s not at all unpopular: Morning Consult’s favorability measurements give him a 3/1 ratio (48/16), fifth in the field behind dominant polling candidates Warren, Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg. Yet his RealClearPolitics polling averages are at 2.0 percent nationally, 1.8 percent in Iowa and 1.3 percent in New Hampshire. In South Carolina, where a majority-black primary electorate ought to give him an opportunity for a breakthrough, he’s doing a bit better, at 3.4 percent — but he’s in a poor sixth place, trailing Tom Steyer. Two fairly recent polls in his home state are especially discouraging. A Change Research poll of New Jersey shortly before Labor Day placed him in sixth place, at 5 percent (less than half of Pete Buttigieg’s 12 percent). A September Monmouth survey was marginally better, but he was still in single digits and far behind the Big Three of Biden (26 percent), Warren (20 percent), and Sanders (18 percent). He’s been in the glare of statewide publicity in the Garden State since at least his first run for mayor of Newark back in 2002.
Goldberg thinks (and I’ve heard other smart people say similar things) that Booker is somehow caught between a celebrity status among media and political elites that has grown stale, while still being relatively unknown to regular voters around the country:
Booker’s problem may be that he’s too well known by political journalists to be exciting, but too little known by most voters to be a household name.
He’s also having to overcome some less-than-enthusiastic feelings from members of the party’s progressive wing, who have looked dimly on his close relations with Wall Street (a very common thing for New Jersey Democrats) and his past support for school choice — even private-school vouchers, which most Democrats reject. And some civil-rights advocates remain unhappy with his abrasive campaigns to rid Newark of its longtime mayor, Sharpe James, who was something of a hero to African-Americans locally for a long time.
But having said all that, Booker has too much going for him to be languishing in the back of the pack as he has been for most of the cycle. Just last month, he actually threatened to drop out, as CBS reported:
On September 21, Booker’s campaign announced it needed to raise $1.7 million in the last ten days of the filing period in order to stay competitive and expand operations. At the time, Booker’s campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, told reporters that Booker would have no choice but to exit the race should they not reach their fundraising needs.
In the end, they surpassed that goal, raking in more than $2.1 million over that ten-day period from more than 46,000 donations. September ended up being Booker’s best fundraising month overall, with his campaign taking in $3.1 million.
So perhaps it was just a fundraising gimmick, but it’s not one normally indulged in by campaigns that are doing well.
Now, you can make an argument that all of Booker’s on-paper strengths are just below the surface, capable of giving his campaign a lift if he can just get a break. Like Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar, Booker is still auditioning to become a “moderate alternative” to Joe Biden. Unlike Buttigieg and Klobuchar, though, he is ideologically ambidextrous, and has shown some ability to appeal to young minority activists — much like Barack Obama did. Harris is appealing to many of the same voters, in Iowa and in South Carolina. If her campaign continues to fade, if Mayor Pete loses some of his current steam, if Klobuchar fails to catch fire, and if Biden finally stumbles and does not fully recover, then Booker could have his opening, and all his latent assets could balloon into something formidable. Then his background as a mayor, as an innovative policy thinker, as a good debater and a fine orator, as an inspirational and authentically religious figure — could make him a sudden star. If Biden loses his magic hold on Booker’s fellow African-Americans, he could rise quickly as the nomination contest moves south and to the industrial states.
Even if he does get very lucky, though, the question is whether any Booker Boom could be too little and too late. One friend of mine who is a Booker fan pointed to the left-for-dead autumn campaigns of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry and 2008 Republican nominee John McCain as examples of candidates doing very poorly at this point in the cycle who nonetheless came back to win. Both of those candidates, though, were early front-runners with near-universal name ID, who faded, but whose poll numbers (here and here) never got as low as Booker’s highest showings.
The closest recent, relatively successful candidate I can find who was where Booker is today would have to be 2012 Republican candidate Rick Santorum, who by dint of long obscure labor in Iowa, longstanding relationships with the Christian Right, and an entire demolition derby damaging many of his rivals, came out of nowhere to win the Caucuses, later solidifying his position as the last serious challenger to Mitt Romney. If reports from Iowa are accurate, Booker’s organizational strength in that state has faded. And if his poll numbers don’t turn around very soon, his streak of impressive debate performances could end by December; he’s in danger of missing the stage. It would be a shame if he gets “winnowed” before he has taken advantage of his great potential as a presidential candidate.