U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey announced on Monday that he would be ending his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, less than a month before the first votes are cast. Booker’s campaign had been facing a daunting set of hurdles, including his failure to qualify for the December and January debates, serious financial strains to his organization, and the prospect of impeachment forcing him to stay in Washington D.C. in the run-up to the early primaries.
Booker’s departure leaves only one African-American – former Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick, who entered the race in mid-November – in a presidential primary field that was once the most diverse in history. The only Latino candidate, former H.U.D. Secretary Julián Castro, dropped out a the start of the year.
Booker’s withdrawal is a blow to his supporters, but one that has been a long time coming. As early as last September, Booker warned that his campaign would not be able to continue without a significant increase in donations.
While Booker’s withdrawal from the race at this moment is not particularly shocking, his underwhelming performance throughout his campaign (launched almost a year ago) has left both his fans and political analysts scratching their heads.
Booker had all the makings of a great candidate.
He is a relatively young black man and a talented orator, attracting comparisons between himself and Barack Obama for much of his political career. As mayor of Newark, he had a reputation for not only being hands-on, but for almost super-heroic feats including once rushing into a burning building to save a neighbor.
As a Senator, he began shaking off his connections to Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry and embracing progressive policies like the Green New Deal, and pioneered a platform of innovative racial justice policies.
Booker seemed to have the potential to reunite the “Obama Coalition” of young voters, women, and people of color which crushed the Republicans in both 2008 and 2012. However, it never came to pass, and Booker never rose above a couple of percentage points in the polls for the entirety of his campaign.
This happened for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the diversity of the field in the early days of 2019 may have actually undermined Booker: he was a former mayor and Rhodes scholar, but so was Pete Buttigieg; he was a person of color, but so were several others; he had a talent for soaring rhetoric, but he had to compete with Kamala Harris’ aggressive prosecutorial oration, Bernie Sanders’ blunt and impassioned political exhortations, and Joe Biden’s folksy spiel.
Booker also suffered from an inability to create a “moment” for himself in the campaign. Other campaigns worked to take advantage of times during the primary where the full force of the media’s attention turned to them – most notably, Harris rocketed to second place in the polls after she challenged Joe Biden on his past support of policies that perpetuate systemic racism in the first debate.
Booker never had such a moment, though not for lack of trying.
The lack of a breakthrough meant that there was never a time where Booker was considered part of the top tier of 2020 candidates. This contributed to his campaign’s financial woes, forcing them to rely on a relatively small number of dedicated donors – in the last quarter of 2019, Booker’s campaign received $6.6 million, whereas Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg both raised over $20 million, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign raised a whopping $34 million.
Booker’s lack of funding effectively crippled his campaign; the meager amount he was able to spend on advertising essentially ensured that his message would never reach the broader public. In contrast, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have poured millions from their personal fortunes into advertising, elevating these frankly far less-deserving candidates beyond Booker’s level of support.
The best example of this is in Iowa, where Booker had pinned all his hopes of a breakout moment. The Booker campaign spent around $300,000 on advertising in Iowa over the past fortnight. By contrast Michael Bloomberg (who has panned the importance of the early states in the primary process) recently spent $10 million for a Super Bowl ad that will air the night before the Iowa caucuses.
Another nail in the coffin of Booker’s campaign was, surprisingly, Donald Trump’s impeachment. While Booker was likely glad when the President was impeached, it soon became apparent that the Senate trial would pose a major problem for the six senators running for the presidency, Booker included.
If the trial begins this week, senators will be obliged to remain in the District of Columbia to act as jurors, keeping them away from the campaign trail in the final weeks running up to the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
None of those candidates could quite straddle the divide that has pitted the progressive and neoliberal wings of the party against each other.
Warren and Sanders have sewn up the support of the progressive wing and Buttigieg and Biden have sewn up the neoliberal wing, with the billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg lurking at the margins along with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose unconventional campaign is powered by a small but intense base of supporters who affectionately call themselves “the Yang Gang”.
Despite his at times electrifying charisma, Booker doomed himself with constant attempts to reconcile the sparring factions, instead of decisively taking a side.
The 2020 primary has become an ideological battle with neither wing of the party in the mood to yield, at least not yet. Both wings of the party believe that what one of their candidates have to offer the American people would maximize the party’s chances of defeating Donald Trump in the coming November election.
Cory Booker thought his message of unity could bring the old Obama coalition back together. But in a bleaker, more ideologically brutal political landscape, this approach did not yield results. Booker is up for reelection to his seat in the Senate this year, and his prospects seem good in New Jersey – the Garden State has not elected a Republican to the Senate for forty years.
His withdrawal from the race is unlikely to alter national polling much, but it could have an impact in Iowa. Booker’s Iowa campaign team have been on the ground for months and have become an experienced and capable political force and other campaigns would be well advised to hire them quickly. Booker’s committed major donors will now also be up for grabs at a crucial juncture in the contest.