Twelve years after the candidate of hope and change swept into the White House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is testing whether another Democratic presidential candidate can ride a promise of renewing national unity to the White House.
In the most polarized political climate in modern history, it’s not going well — a hint, perhaps, that Democratic voters are less in the mood to join hands with the opposition than under President Obama and more in the market for a street fighter or a safe bet to beat President Trump.
Booker, long seen as a potential front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has positioned himself as the contender most able to heal the wounds wrought by naked partisanship.
“The next president must be a healer, a uniter, who is called to the common cause of the country,” Booker told an audience in New Hampshire last week. “We make a mistake in this election if we demonize Republicans and say, ‘Hey, the position of the Democratic Party is to beat Republicans.’”
Some of Booker’s most ardent backers say his pledge to mend raw wounds is exactly why they support him. And, in interviews with nearly a dozen Booker supporters and advisers, many said he has created the infrastructure necessary to catch fire, especially if leading contenders like former Vice President Joe Biden stumble.
“We’re positioning ourselves to break through,” said Iowa state Rep. Heather Matson (D), a Booker backer. “People make up their minds at the last minute. What I see as I am either at events with Cory or hear from people who were at events is that once they get a chance to see him in person, hear his message, they love him.”
Four months ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Booker faces the same dilemma that many Democratic candidates confront: They have limited time, and limited resources, to break through in what remains a crowded field, and few opportunities for a break-out moment that would allow them to do so.
But Booker is better positioned than many of his low-polling compatriots. He commands a stage like few others running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Polls show he has higher favorable ratings than most of the rest of the Democratic field, suggesting the potential for upside growth.
The most recent Iowa Poll conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN showed more voters see him favorably than any candidate except Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), hinting that Booker has room to grow.
And he has won backing from more state legislators in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina than any candidate except Biden and Warren.
Those data points, if anything, serve to highlight the contrast with the harsher reality: Booker has never polled anywhere near his leading Democratic rivals in key early states.
The early state polls show Booker’s high water marks are months old. He has never polled higher than 7 percent in Iowa (in a March poll), 5 percent in New Hampshire (in February), 6 percent in South Carolina (also in March) and 3 percent in Nevada (from an August poll).
“We did come into this race behind other candidates who have run nationally before,” campaign manager Addisu Demissie told reporters on Tuesday. “We definitely need to continue to expand our online and small dollar universe and that is something we are very, very focused on here.”
The fact that his message has yet to translate into a solid base of support has even some of his supporters wondering whether Booker is the man for the moment. Do Democratic voters want hope and change version 2.0, or do they want something else — a candidate who pledges wholesale change, or a candidate who represents a steady hand capable of beating Trump?
As Booker searches for an opening, he is building a field team necessary to capitalize on any viral moment or boost in support. He has 50 staffers on the ground in Iowa and 30 employees in New Hampshire, both numbers that are expected to grow.
Demissie, Booker’s campaign manager, told reporters on Tuesday that the team had budgeted more than $4 million in payroll costs for the next three months alone.
Some of Booker’s supporters believe the smorgasbord of choices Democratic voters face is what has held back so many of those voters from making a final decision. They believe getting Booker in front of as many voters as possible will translate into support — especially as the field narrows.
“He checks off all the boxes that Democrats historically have looked for in a presidential candidate. He’s young, he’s visionary, he is articulate, he is very likely, he’s a policy wonk, he’s the future,” said Jim Demers, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic activist who was among Booker’s first backers. “But I think the biggest obstacle for almost all of the candidates, except for the three big-name candidates, is the size of the field.”
“With so many people running, it has voters sitting and waiting for the field to winnow down. I can’t help but think if there were six or seven candidates in this race, Cory Booker would be in first place,” Demers said.
Some early skeptics of Booker’s have become ardent backers. New Hampshire state Rep. Anita Burroughs (D), another member of Booker’s team, said she had been converted after meeting Booker at an event.
“I actually had the question, is this guy the real deal or is this opportunism?” Burroughs said in an interview. Then she met Booker. “My husband and I were blown away by him. He connects with people in a way that I’ve never seen a politician do.”
But to grow, Booker needs to earn media coverage — coverage that has become increasingly scant as impeachment inquiries into President Trump become all-consuming. Some advisers worry that the focus on impeachment, Trump’s attacks on Biden and his son, and the growing consensus that a top tier has emerged have frozen the race at a time when Booker needs to be growing.
“The press has limited resources as well, so a lot of their focus has been on Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the rest of the field hasn’t gotten that same level of attention. It’s one of those chicken and the egg situation,” Demers said.
But, Demers added: “We have everything in place here to have a winning campaign.”
— Max Greenwood contributed reporting