Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign has been steeped in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. The New Jersey Democrat has cast his run as a quest to confront injustice and unite Americans behind a “common purpose.” But before Booker can overcome inequality and discord, he needs to face daunting early poll numbers and a perception that he is falling behind.
When Booker entered the presidential race in February, he was widely considered one of the leading contenders in the crowded Democratic primary. While he has largely held steady and is still edging out more than half the declared candidates, he’s still at just over 2 percent support in most polls. He is behind some of his Senate colleagues, and he has watched far lower-profile politicians vault over him.
Faced with these daunting poll numbers and waning buzz, senior members of Booker’s campaign made their case to Yahoo News for why, as the Democratic presidential debates begin later this month, they still think he can pull ahead. They’re betting on a two-pronged strategy focused on building an organization in key early states and rolling out an ambitious policy agenda devoted to the idea of “justice.”
"Our philosophy has been, the race is going to be won in January or February of next year. The goal is to build a sustainable organization and have a platform, policy-wise and infrastructurally speaking, to be in it for the long haul,” Addisu Demissie, Booker’s campaign manager, said in an interview with Yahoo News last week.
The Booker campaign’s plan to build out a quality team and detailed suite of policies also includes a tight focus on the first four states on the primary calendar: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
"In Iowa and New Hampshire, in these places, you can actually win these things with retail politics. You can win by organizing and introducing yourself to people,” Demissie said. “The way to cut through the noise ... you can win hand to hand."
While Booker is getting in front of voters in key states with what he believes is a unique agenda, he’s not receiving the extended coverage of his biography that other Democratic presidential hopefuls are enjoying. Booker, who took office as mayor of Newark, N.J., in 2006, became something of a national political celebrity thanks to his pioneering social media presence and hands-on approach, like personally shoveling snow for constituents and rescuing a woman from a burning building.
Booker’s opponents — particularly the two who have most dramatically climbed past him in the rankings, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have been buoyed by extensive press. Articles have chronicled O’Rourke’s youthful stints in punk bands and Buttigieg’s mastery of multiple languages.
Demissie acknowledged that his candidate doesn’t have what he termed the “newness thing.” However, he pointed to poll numbers indicating that much of the public has yet to meet Booker even if reporters have already shared many of his stories.
"We have nine months to introduce him to these folks, and the numbers will change when that changes,” Demissie said.
On Twitter, Demissie also regularly points out how inaccurate early presidential primary polls have been in the past when they predicted Presidents Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. He told Yahoo News that he believes the current surveys showing Booker near the back of the top tier reflect more “soft support” from voters.
"They're just going somewhere because they're being asked to go somewhere, but it's extremely fluid,” Demissie said of the polls. “We just want to be on the list for the next six months, and in the meantime take our time building.”
Demissie’s social media posts are also peppered with the hashtag #BrickByBrick, which has become something of a mantra for him and his troops as they preach their faith in groundwork over early polling.
“The point is to be ready for February, March, April of next year, when people are actually voting — to have built relationships so that people have a kind of connection with Cory Booker that, if they go into a voting booth or a caucus room, it leads them to decide on him,” Demissie said.
Booker has traveled extensively through the first four primary states. And in some of these early battlegrounds, even outside observers have recognized that he has built one of the better organizations in the primary field. The site Iowa Starting Line, which obsessively chronicles the state’s caucuses, reported in February that Booker had one of “the largest, most impressive-looking teams” in Iowa based on the size and local experience of his staff. He also scored the first endorsements from legislators in the state.
Jenn Brown, a deputy campaign manager for Booker, said his team is “doubling down in those first four states.” She noted that having a large and experienced team is particularly important in Iowa, where the caucus system is complex and involves strategic maneuvering on the day votes are cast.
"The strength of your volunteer operation, and the people who are in the room to pick up voters when other candidates drop off, is a huge deal,” Brown explained.
Yet infrastructure isn’t everything. South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore, who co-chairs California Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign in the state, also credited Booker’s staff there. But Moore noted that Booker hasn’t gained momentum.
“Booker has the best team in South Carolina. The best,” Moore said, adding, “But he’s not catching on.”
Early state polling data is less robust than national surveys, but there are some indications that Booker’s efforts are paying off. He is averaging over 4 percent in Iowa and 5 percent in South Carolina, where he’s in fourth place behind former Vice President Joe Biden, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Harris.
Booker has also tried to distinguish himself in terms of policy. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has far outpaced the rest of the Democratic candidates by releasing over 20 detailed proposals. Booker’s platform is not as fleshed out as Warren’s, but he has unveiled more policies than almost anyone else in the primary field.
Last month, he embarked on a multistate “Justice for All” tour, in which he highlighted a suite of policies including a dramatic expansion to the earned income tax credit, efforts to protect voting rights and expand access, and an “environmental justice plan.”
And on May 5, he unveiled a sweeping gun control plan that included mandating technology that would leave traceable micro-stamps on handgun shells. He followed that up with a proposal designed to reduce gun suicides.
But no one can escape the ever-present national polls, which drive coverage and can influence voters.
For now, those polls show that Biden has emerged as a clear frontrunner, followed by Sanders. The two leaders in the field of over 20 Democrats clearly have the highest name recognition, thanks to Biden’s past White House position and Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. But behind Biden and Sanders there are two other senators, Warren and Harris. And while Booker entered the race being compared with this cohort, O’Rourke and Buttigieg have moved between him and the rest of this top tier.
As of now, Booker’s poll numbers are still good enough to keep him onstage through the third Democratic debate, when the field will be dramatically thinned thanks to a new set of rules unveiled by party leadership on Wednesday. Debates could also be a major opportunity for Booker, who has long been known as a powerful speaker.
And some of the other candidates who are currently in front, particularly O’Rourke, have shed support of late, while Booker has remained steady.
But poll numbers aren’t the only metric where Booker is being outpaced. When fundraising figures showing how many donations each candidate raised during the first quarter of this year were released last month, he was also behind all of the aforementioned presidential hopefuls.
While Booker may not be leading the way, he is ahead of most of the Democrats running for president in terms of both poll numbers and campaign cash. And Demissie said the over $5 million Booker brought in is more than enough for the senator to fund his team.
“You just need as much money as you need to build your organization. The goal is to fund the organization and not just have money for money's sake,” Demissie said, adding, “As long as we have enough money to pay for our organization, which we will and do, then we'll be able to stay in the race and compete."
Brown insisted she isn’t concerned about people jumping ship from Booker’s team due to his performance in the polls.
"This is the thing about people who have decided to work for Cory Booker in this race,” she said. “They truly believe that they want to spend their lives, and most certainly this campaign cycle, making a difference behind somebody who has a vision that they believe in, and they all chose him.”
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