Pete Buttigieg Is Using Cory Booker's Playbook

A young politician with an elite education, mayoral experience, and an optimistic vision? That sounds familiar.

Jason Reed / Reuters

He’s a Rhodes Scholar turned youthful mayor of a troubled post-industrial city. Having replaced a longtime incumbent, he’s been acclaimed for tackling his town’s hard problems and leading a revival. His rhetoric marries Barack Obama’s optimism with a focus on Christian faith that’s unusual in the contemporary Democratic Party. He’s different, and Democratic voters are excited. While some skeptics think he’s trying to move up the political tree too fast, others are cheering him on and even see the presidency in his future.

He’s Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, running for Senate in 2013.

Of course, he’s also Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, running for president in 2019.

Booker comfortably won his 2013 race. Buttigieg has a long road ahead of him to the Democratic presidential nomination, and he’s got a long list of rivals, including Cory Booker. But so far, Buttigieg is ahead of Booker in the polls, running a campaign that owes a great deal to Booker’s political approach. Buttigieg is the moment’s It candidate, having shot up from near-anonymity to 5.2 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average of polling. Booker, meanwhile, remains mired a little below the 4 percent that’s been roughly his ceiling so far.

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.

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.