Time is running out for Corey Booker. The Senator from New Jersey must qualify for the next debates or he can effectively kiss any hope of winning the Democratic nomination goodbye.
Unlike other candidates, such as Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang, who have used their outsider status to support their candidacies despite missed debates and poor debate performances, Booker is running as an insider establishment moderate but without the support of the big donors of the Democratic establishment to fuel his campaign. Granted, many moderate liberals who are just tuning into the primary race now are intrigued by him. He definitely has some strong policy positions that appeal to those who want open borders and more relaxed immigration laws. But without regular appearances on the debate stage, it is safe to say that most of America will not remember who Cory Booker is in a few months.
There is hope for Booker, though. During his closing remarks at the previous debate last week, he made an impassioned plea for support. “Keep me on this stage, keep me in this race, it is time we fight, and fight together. Please go to corybooker.com,” he said. Those moderate liberals who are just now tuning in to the Democratic race responded. According to the Hill, “The New Jersey senator raised more than $500,000 since last night’s event, marking the campaign's best nine hours of fundraising to date, his campaign announced Thursday. The spike helped Booker cross the 200,000 unique donor threshold needed to qualify for the December debate in Los Angeles.”
But the major problem Booker faces is in the polls. At the moment, Cory Booker’s polling numbers are not good. He has not polled above 4% in months, and the chances that he will poll higher before the next debate are diminishing every day. In order to qualify for the 6th Democratic debate, candidates must reach 200,000 individual donors and either 6% ranking in two early-state polls or 4% in four national or early-state polls. Currently, Booker is polling at around 2% according to the latest polling from CNN. Real Clear Politics puts him at 1.7% nationally, 1.7% in Iowa, 2.3% in New Hampshire, and 2.3% in South Carolina. These are not good numbers to work with going into Thanksgiving, just 2 months out from the Iowa caucus.
In response to this crisis, Booker has recently decided to spend some of those new donations on his first paid ads, including what the campaign called “digital persuasion” ads, which is apparently campaign speak for facebook ads. In a memo to supporters, Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie said, “With the 200,000 unique donor threshold now met, we are reorienting our entire campaign apparatus into a persuasion effort designed to further elevate the message Cory’s been committed to this entire campaign and reach the voters we need to meet the polling threshold. In the days to come, Cory 2020 will launch our first paid advertisements on radio and our first digital persuasion ads — a six-figure ad buy. We will also work hard to raise additional funds with the hope of placing our first television ad buys in Iowa and South Carolina.”
The question on everyone’s minds is what Booker could possibly say in those ads that will sway voters more than what he has already said now. It is true that a new crop of voters are beginning to pay attention to the Democratic primary race, and as political discussions rage over the holidays in homes across the nation, his name will likely get tossed around by those who are sympathetic to his backstory and message of populist unity. But he will likely suffer among this new crop of voters just as he has suffered in previous rounds.
In some ways, the fact that Booker has struggled so much to gain traction is surprising. In December of last year, CNN put him 4th in their power rankings, ahead of both Warren and Sanders. As a fiscally conservative Democrat molding himself after Bill Clinton, he seemed to have the perfect background to challenge the other moderate heavyweights in the field. In 2002, after winning the race to become Mayor of Newark New Jersey with a campaign heavily funded by Wall Street, he seemed to have an unstoppable momentum about him. He had been a suburban-bred football star, and attended Stanford, Oxford and Yale. Just like Clinton, he has spent a lifetime dazzling people, from teachers to politicians to the national news media. 17 years ago, the New Yorker called him “essentially a Clinton Democrat.” Jesse Jackson called him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Jackson was right. In 2011, Booker joined Governor Chris Christi in attempting to cut health and retirement benefits for teachers and other state workers. Later on, Booker called on Obama to “stop attacking private equity” even as he took more than one third of his campaign contributions from Wall Street. In his most recent election cycle, in 2014, Booker received $223,350 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and its employees. That has left many progressives accusing him of being the “Big Pharma” candidate.
If that is true, and yet Booker is still struggling for cash and name recognition, it is fair to ask, “what happened to all of that big money?”
The story that is most likely is that Booker tried to pivot away from his pro-business leanings just as that background might have helped him in the race for the Democratic nomination. He seems to have made a bad calculation, that in order to win the Democratic nomination, he must first distance himself from the perception that he is cozy with Big Pharma and Wall Street. In an interview back in February, Booker signaled his changing views on Big Pharma in a radio interview. “If I become president of the United States, we’re going to push to be able to punish them if [pharmaceutical companies] raise prices [without justification],” Booker said, citing as an example recent price hikes for a cancer drug that has been on the market for over a decade. “It’s unconscionable how people are profiteering off the pain of others, and we’re going to make sure we hold them accountable.” There are many other similar examples of Booker’s attempt to pivot away from Pharma.
The problem is that his entire background is based on a pro-business stance. He is not a progressive, and it was likely a mistake to try to act like one this late in the game. Not only does it mean that all of the funding sources that he has cultivated over the years have dried up, but it also means that no one trusts him anymore. Progressives are notoriously wary of politicians who pretend to be progressive only to backtrack to the middle later on. Winning them over is a tall order for Booker because of his nearly 20-year career as a pro-business fiscally conservative Clintonite. But now that he has turned his back on the middle, moderate liberals are unlikely to even understand who he is or what he stands for. The unfortunate timing of all of this makes the mistake even more obvious: at a time when Democrats are looking around for a moderate liberal who can play to the middle and take over for Biden, Booker has ruined his chances of being their darling by turning his back on them just when they finally were ready to make him a star. Instead, the Dems must now salvage what they can of Biden’s candidacy or make do with Buttigieg or Harris, neither of whom have the magnetism that Booker is known for.
It is fair to say that this recent six-figure ad spend signals the beginning of Booker’s last attempt to break through into the top of the Democratic field. If he does not qualify for the next debate, which will take place on December 19th (he has met the donor threshold but not the polling threshold), he is unlikely to ever receive enough support to continue beyond the first few primaries in February. He has until December 12th to qualify. That is about two weeks away. Then it will be time to close the book on Booker.