Cory Booker Finds Every Lane Blocked in 2020 Democratic Field

(Bloomberg) -- Cory Booker warmed up a small crowd at the Jubilee United Methodist Church with a story about the time a “big dude” told him to “punch Donald Trump in the face.”

“I go, ‘Dude, that’s a felony, man,” he said, garnering laughs and applause from the audience in Waterloo, Iowa, before delivering the moral of the story. “We don’t beat Donald Trump by being more like Donald Trump!”

In a less crowded field, Booker’s skills at connecting with voters would be paying off already. But in this cycle’s Democratic presidential contest, every lane he tries to run in is blocked.

Cory Booker Finds Every Lane Blocked in 2020 Democratic Field

Wunderkind Rhodes Scholar turned mayor? That’s Pete Buttigieg. Favorite of the crucial African-American voting bloc? Joe Biden has most of that locked down for now and Booker is competing with Kamala Harris for any undecideds. Good before big crowds? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have captured the progressive energy this time around.

Even his message of love and conciliation is drowned out by the more New Age comments of Marianne Williamson.

Time -- and money -- is running out for Booker to make his bid for the chance to confront Trump. He has qualified for the Nov. 20 debate in Atlanta, but has not yet qualified for the December debate. If he doesn’t, that lessens his chances of competing in the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 3.

Other would-be contenders in the back of the pack – especially Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas – shifted strategies before eventually dropping out. But Booker is soldiering on, sticking by his plan to build up enough quiet support to surprise the pundits at the Iowa caucuses and get a second look from voters in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina later in the month.

Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie told Bloomberg Radio Wednesday that there are "signs of weakness" among the top contenders that would benefit Booker as other candidates drop out.

"We think as the field narrows, there’s going to be an increasing amount of attention on the candidates who are still out there," he said.

It’s the kind of late-bloomer strategy that worked for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but it’s also failed for many other candidates.

In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Booker remains stuck in eighth place, essentially tied with Tulsi Gabbard at 1.9%. With 165,000 unique donors and slightly higher numbers in some early state polls, he qualified for the October and November debate stages, but his overall haul of $18 million is still shy of what Sanders and Warren raised in the third quarter alone.

In an interview with Bloomberg in Des Moines, Booker ticked off all the ways he’d be a strong nominee. He has executive experience as the two-term mayor of Newark. He is preternaturally effusive, a trait that was bolstered on the Iowa visit by his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson. He believes he could turn out the black vote in a way that Democrats failed to do in 2016, as well as turn out the votes of college-educated whites, as he has in New Jersey’s educated suburbs when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

“There is nobody in this field that can excite and energize the totality of our base in the way that I can,” he said.

When the talk turns to policy, a wonkier side emerges.

On stage at an NAACP forum, Booker sells his ideas like a lecturer at a TED Talk, referencing statistics in a Columbia University study as well as a chat he had once with the late rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle. The proposals – like “baby bonds” that he would give every newborn to help close the racial wealth gap – are backed up with research, bold enough to seem effective but limited enough not to raise concerns about costs.

It’s a campaign that is designed to inspire without offending, especially among the donor class, where his Wall Street ties help with fundraising.

But it’s also why Booker has seemed out of step in a campaign dominated by trillion-dollar proposals on climate change, health care and infrastructure. At a time when Democratic voters are angry at Trump and fearful of a second term, Booker is offering a message of love and hope, boasting about crossing party lines to negotiate a criminal justice reform bill with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.

When pressed, Booker seems OK with the idea that 2020 might not be his year. Unlike some of his competitors, especially Warren and Trump, he knows what it’s like to lose. His first race for mayor of Newark, in 2002, documented in the film “Street Fight,” ended with a loss – something he says surprises some of his newer supporters who check it out online.

“If you all are going to have a spectacular failure in your life, have a documentary team there to capture it,” he jokes at the event at Jubilee. “My first big failure became an Oscar-nominated movie – and then it loses again at the Oscars.”

One thing that race taught him was the importance of grassroots organization, which experts say is especially helpful in New Jersey politics and may yet prove useful in Iowa.

John Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former state attorney general, said that a ground game is crucial in Newark, which has long been dominated by local political machines. It’s necessary as well in statewide races because New Jersey’s television markets are dominated by New York City and Philadelphia, making commercials both expensive -- and ineffective.

“He’s really concentrating in Iowa on organizing at the grassroots level and getting the turnout they need at the caucuses,” Farmer said. “That’s a lesson he took from Newark.”

But even when it comes to organization on the ground, he’s lagging the top of the field. Booker has five offices and 50 staff members in Iowa, compared to around 20 offices and about 100 staff each for Biden, Warren and Buttigieg.

After hearing Booker speak at the NAACP forum, semi-retired insurance broker Marvin Alexander said he thought he was smart and relatable, and he’s heard good things about his time in Newark from an aunt and uncle who live in nearby Montclair, New Jersey. But he wasn’t sold on any candidate yet.

“When you’ve got that many people running, it’s difficult to stand out,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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