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Why Cory Booker’s Campaign Hasn’t Taken Off

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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.

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