Why Hasn’t Cory Booker’s Campaign Caught Fire?

On paper, he’s exactly what many Democratic voters say they want.

Supporters of Cory Booker in Nevada
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

CONCORD, N.H.—“We! Will! Rise!” Cory Booker’s supporters chanted as he made his way down the hallway of the New Hampshire statehouse to file for the primary on Friday morning. “We will rise,” Booker wrote on a copy of the primary-ballot announcement that the secretary of state had, for commemorative purposes, asked all the candidates to sign. Booker had a hard time squeezing his words in, because of all the other names already taking up most of the space.

The slogan is meant to be a proud one. The words, borrowed from Maya Angelou and the civil-rights movement, have always inspired Booker; today, they fit neatly into his call for a beleaguered country to transcend the damage done by Donald Trump. But at this point, given Booker’s standing in the polls (he’s consistently stuck around 10th place in the field), they can come off as plaintive. Still, Booker and his aides remain hopeful that, in retrospect, the line will prove to have been clairvoyant.

When he filed his papers for the primary, the first questions Booker got from reporters were about why he wasn’t doing better in the polls. In fact, most of the questions he gets these days are about why he isn’t doing better.

Pete Buttigieg gets admiring attention for being a Rhodes Scholar. Kamala Harris gets attention for being a black candidate who has won statewide election. Beto O’Rourke got attention for speaking Spanish and being a social-media savant. But Booker is a Rhodes scholar, he was the first black candidate to win statewide in New Jersey, he speaks Spanish, and he has been a social-media phenomenon since back when he was famous for rescuing a freezing dog and a woman from a fire—yet he’s never captured the breathless (if sometimes fleeting) attention the others have in this race.

Staffers for the senator’s campaign are exasperated and annoyed. Booker has tried everything, down to providing hand warmers for the 200 people at the rally in front of the statehouse after he finished filing for the primary. He’s done everything right: established the necessary relationships in key states, racked up more endorsements than any other candidate, performed well in the debates. He carries the message of unity that Democrats say they want. He’s been out front on gun control, he grapples publicly with America’s structural racism, he’s proposed innovative government programs for combatting economic inequality, he’s been squaring progressive politics with openness to business for years. He’s made no big gaffes, had no significant stumbles. His messaging has been consistent. At candidate events, he reliably gives the best speeches to the most thunderous ovations.

And yet few people believe he can win the nomination—and that’s been true for the entire 10 months he’s been running. Black voters don’t seem to believe he can win. Nor do progressive voters. Nor do Wall Street voters. Though his campaign has had no layoffs, no whiplash restructurings, no finger-pointing leaks about internal drama, some staffers have started to wonder if the time has come to start interviewing elsewhere. And now, just as Booker was grasping for whatever slivers of visibility he could grab hold of in impeachment’s shadow, Deval Patrick and Mike Bloomberg have jumped into the race, saying voters in search of a moderate, unifying, electable candidate should take a look at them. Wait a minute, the Booker campaign could be forgiven for saying. Couldn’t you take a look at someone already in the race? He’s right here!

“A lot of people in the party seem to think they need more choices,” Robert Backus, a New Hampshire state representative who’s endorsed Booker, told me after the New Hampshire rally. “They should have listened to Cory—they probably wouldn’t feel that way.”

Backus is one of 87 New Hampshire officials who have endorsed Booker, along with 84 officials in Iowa, 72 in Nevada, and 36 in South Carolina—he’s got extensive operations in each state, and endorsements continue to come in. Gerri Cannon, another New Hampshire state representative, endorsed him last week. Cannon told me she’d first met Booker a year ago, when she went up to him saying, “I’m Gerri—” and he interrupted: “Cannon—I know who you are.” Cannon, one of the first transgender state legislators in America, told me, “I’m always surprised with how he connects with people.”

Booker campaigns like he’s breathing, quick on his feet. Last week, I watched him craft an uplifting answer about diversity in response to a question from a crank in a coffee shop who said the candidate was deepening racial divides, and respond to another man’s aggressive questioning about the controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel by delivering what he called his own dvar Torah on making connections; he ended his answer in Hebrew.

Booker’s campaign is perhaps the oddest phenomenon in the 2020 primary race. Usually when a politician gives a great speech, people cheer and immediately start saying that person should run for president. But when Booker gives a great speech while running for president, people cheer and … immediately start discussing what they’re going to get for lunch. It’s an ongoing subject of puzzlement among political journalists, who over the months can’t avoid becoming connoisseurs of campaign speechifying: Why, when Booker consistently gives the best, most uplifting, most audience-electrifying speeches, does that energy not translate into higher poll numbers? If Booker had any hair, he’d probably have started pulling it out months ago.

“We have all the combustible materials to light on fire at the right time,” Booker told me last week. “Everything is there, if past campaigns hold. And I’m very confident that we’re going to do it.”

We were sitting in an RV the campaign had rented, a few hours after he filed his paperwork in Concord. Booker had just finished his short town hall in the coffee shop, where one woman told me she was totally on board with him despite having told a Quinnipiac pollster two weeks earlier that she favored Amy Klobuchar; another woman said she’d arrived undecided but was leaving all in for Booker because he is “grounding his campaign on love and empathy and uniting.” Booker says that his deep emotional connection with voters like these is a better indicator of his campaign’s strength than his standing in the polls. Which could be true—but is also what a candidate whose poll numbers have never climbed out of the single digits would say. More auspicious for his staying power is the fact that Booker’s is the only campaign besides the front-runners’ (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg) that has an infrastructure built to last past Iowa.

Booker and Deval Patrick are friendly—they met over the summer to talk about the race—but Patrick’s entrance into the race has got to feel galling, and perhaps like an existential threat. This is partly because both Patrick and Booker are now pinning their hopes on strong showings in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries (though Booker’s strategy also calls for him to surprise in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses). But it’s partly because even Patrick admits that he’s launching himself into the same political space Booker occupies, or at least has tried to occupy: center-left, business-friendly, aspirationally unifying. When I asked Patrick last Thursday how he thought he could differentiate himself in an already crowded primary field, he conceded that he was coming onto Booker’s turf. “I think particularly in Senator Booker’s case, there is a lot in common with his message of unity,” Patrick said. What he’s offering, Patrick told me, is executive experience in a bigger position, governor of Massachusetts, than Booker had filled as mayor of Newark. Patrick also said he had “experience bringing people together and frankly delivering on big agenda items, hard agenda items.” What he was really arguing, elliptically enough that he could insist he wasn’t going negative, is that Booker’s campaign simply isn’t working.

The next day I asked Booker if there were anything to Patrick’s argument about having better or more successful executive experience. This elicited the famous Booker wide-eye. “Are you asking that with tongue in cheek?” he said. He started to laugh and then suppressed it, evidently not wanting to seem to be laughing at Patrick. What about the bills he got passed in the Senate? Booker asked. What about last year’s criminal-justice-reform bill, whose passage he helped lead? That’s the only bipartisan law Trump has signed. What about the economic development and education reform he pulled off as mayor of Newark?

All of which are legitimate achievements. In theory, Booker really should be doing better. But campaigns aren’t run in theory. So why isn’t he doing better in actual practice?

Maybe it’s that he can come off like he’s trying too hard—like the moment during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings when he said, “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” Maybe it’s because cynical political reporters can’t avoid laughing off his talk about a “conspiracy of love,” or about how there’s no way to love America without loving everyone in America, as being out of step with Trump’s America. Maybe he’s just too weird a confection of traits—a vegan Star Trek fanboy who still lives in inner-city Newark while courting Wall Street and dating the actress Rosario Dawson—to connect with a broad cross section of voters. Or maybe he’s being subjected to a kind of second-order racism: it’s not that voters are opposed to putting another black man in the White House; it’s that they’re afraid other voters won’t be willing to put another black man in the White House—a sort of racist Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“I’m not sure he can win, but I want to give him a chance to compete,” the woman who’d previously supported Klobuchar told me. Why don’t you think he can win? I asked. “Because he’s black,” she said. When I recounted this to Booker, his only response was “Wow”—but when another reporter asked him two days later about whether his race was an impediment to his election prospects, he said: “I know that the last Democratic president was a guy named Barack Obama, and he won.”

At a Democratic event in Las Vegas on Sunday night, Booker gave a powerful speech that once again got a huge response in the room—and that once again failed to reverberate beyond it. “We cannot beat Trump by being more Trumpy,” he said. “We must beat his darkness with our light. We must beat his hate with our love … The candidate we choose must be the antidote.”

Jim Demers is a big shot in New Hampshire Democratic circles. He chaired Obama’s campaign in the state in 2008. This cycle, he signed on early with Booker, and he’s clearly tired of getting the same questions about his candidate’s struggle to break out of the low single digits. “People say, ‘I love this guy—I just need the field to get smaller,’” he told me.

Booker himself seems to be handling everything with his usual upbeat equanimity. “You focus on what you have to do, what you can control, and fate will handle the rest,” he told me in the RV. “I feel a sense of peace about this whole race. We’re giving it everything we’ve got.”

Then he rushed off to catch a flight to California to try to raise enough money to keep his campaign afloat.