Cory Booker never got a breakout moment to make an impression on voters
Cory Booker never got a breakout moment to make an impression on voters (Photo: Gage Skidmore, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

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.

Cory Booker never got a breakout moment to make an impression on voters
Cory Book­er nev­er got a break­out moment to make an impres­sion on vot­ers (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Senator Cory Booker at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er at a cam­paign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Pho­to: Lorie Shaull, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Book­er was tripped up by the same intra­party dynam­ic that also worked against the can­di­da­cies of Beto O’Rourke, Julián Cas­tro and Kamala Har­ris.

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.

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