URBANDALE, Iowa—Cory Booker’s New Jersey accent never comes out stronger than when he pronounces caucus as “kaw-kus.” And here in a two-story building that used to be the city hall—and then was briefly a massage school—Booker’s team of 50-plus people is chasing a dream that no poll in the past six months would suggest they’d achieve: that the 50-year-old senator can win Iowa next February and go on to become the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
“When I turn on the pundits in their armchairs talking about the race, that annoys me, until I think how much they really got it right on the 2016 election,” Booker told me recently, smiling through the sarcasm as we drove from Des Moines to Ames. “Folks who really don’t know what wins in Iowa— they really don’t know.”
Booker thinks he knows. His organizational strength in Iowa has become a perfunctory mention in national campaign coverage. He acknowledged that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and President Donald Trump both showed in 2016 that the kind of campaign Booker is running might be a relic, but competitors on the ground are still keeping their eye on him. Some rivals are wondering what the point of his candidacy is anymore, given how much this primary race has been taken over by a national narrative centered on Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Kamala Harris of California, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and a few others—a narrative in which Booker has barely played a part. (He’s had a few pop-up moments, like this week’s congressional testimony on reparations and taking on Biden over his comments about working with segregationists.)