Read: Cory Booker is happy to be under the radar—for now
The Booker campaign affects nonchalance, as my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote last month. His aides say they’re playing a long game and aren’t worried about which candidates see early surges in popularity. And they may be right. Buttigieg’s moment could fade; Booker has some advantages over a long race. Still, it’s striking (and, for Booker fans, probably worrying) to see Buttigieg soaring with so similar a playbook.
It’s easy to see Buttigieg surging ahead of Booker in the early polling, but it’s harder to see what’s causing it. It isn’t that Booker has a low profile. A CNN poll in March showed him with roughly 65 percent name recognition, neck and neck with Beto O’Rourke and trailing only Bernie Sanders among declared candidates. (The surveyors didn’t even bother with Buttigieg, who was then polling at 1 percent.) Morning Consult finds Booker at a more modest 44 percent—but that’s still 13 points up on Buttigieg.
Does race play against Booker, even in the current Democratic Party? It’s possible. The top-polling Democrats are white men, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Given that he’d be the first openly gay nominee, Buttigieg would seem to face pressures of his own. But maybe being a married gay man is simply less strange to Democratic voters in 2019 than being an unmarried vegan who doesn’t drink, like Booker.
Buttigieg might also benefit from being a shiny new thing. In the medium-to-long run, his big challenge will be converting that into something lasting. Booker, meanwhile, is no longer a novelty—a cruel turn for a man who was accused of being too young and in too much of a hurry just a few years ago. Buttigieg is a younger man in an even greater hurry—and without two Senate elections under his belt.
Read: The Buttigieg boomlet isn’t like the others
But familiarity can breed contempt, or simply indifference. Booker has also long struggled with the impression that he’s doing too much of a shtick, that he’s a bit of a phony, or simply that he’s too ambitious, as he acknowledged perplexedly to New York last September. “My closest friends say to me, ‘When I have conversations with people, they ask that question: “Is he for real?” ’ Which I don’t understand.”
Perhaps relatedly, the former Hillary Clinton aide Nick Merrill told New York that Booker is a skilled retail politician. “From afar, he never really did it for me,” Merrill said. “I find the constant snapping in Senate hearings to be a little ridiculous, and the opposite of authentic. Then I saw him up close and was converted. He’s incredibly impressive.” (Ominously for Booker, Clinton’s fans often say the same about her: She’s incredibly impressive in small groups, but struggles to connect as directly onstage.) Buttigieg, on the other hand, has excelled in larger settings—the wholesale politics that’s most essential for presidential hopefuls.
In a few months, this could seem like premature speculation. For the time being, however, Cory Booker’s problem isn’t that he has a shtick. It’s that Pete Buttigieg has swiped it.