One of the tenets of Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential bid can be traced back to a Maya Angelou quote.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” she said. The New Jersey Senator often recites the sentiment during his lengthy campaign event riffs.
That feeling is what’s carrying Booker, who despite missing the December debate stage (and likely the January one), said during a four-day, 200-mile bus tour through the state that he’s on track to win the Iowa caucuses or place near the top three.
Coupled with the “feeling” many event attendees get after watching the candidate speak, campaign staff said they’ve seen a surge in endorsements, commit-to-caucus cards and donations during the past month. But a lack of national attention has supporters and pundits wondering where the disconnect in his candidacy lies—a question that defined his latest trip, and perhaps his overall bid.
Michael Gregg, an attendee at Friday night’s town hall in Sioux City, asked the candidate directly why he isn’t a top-tier option in the national race.
“Pete Buttigieg has been starting to say a lot of the things that you are about uniting the country. I happen to think you say them better and more passionately,” Gregg said. “Why do you think his campaign is gaining traction and yours hasn’t?”
Booker was prepared for the question, just like he was prepared to talk about how, for the first time during the 2020 election cycle, he didn’t join seven of his competitors to debate on network television last week. At most events throughout his bus tour, he addressed some version of his place in the race, and usually pretty early on the stump.
“I’m in it. I’m in,” Booker told Gregg. “I think that this is going to be a race that is going to follow the patterns of past races that the people that are surging, you know, a month, two months, three months before the caucuses are not necessarily going to be the people that win.”
Booker doesn’t seem worried that he’s trailing behind state frontrunners like Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said he thinks he will rise in the polls by January and make it onto the debate stage—set to air from Des Moines.
“I think that’s where our campaign is going. We’ve had three polls since the polling threshold closes and last election we popped up to 4% already. And I think we’re going to continue to go higher.”
But the candidate’s return to the stage became slimmer on Friday when the Democratic National Committee announced higher polling and donor thresholds for the January debate. He would need to earn 5% in four polls, or 7% in two early state polls. Although he has exceeded the required number of donors, Booker has not hit 5% in a national poll since March.
The candidate acknowledged what he was missing in not getting the national attention while phone banking at his field office in Urbandale on Thursday instead of joining his competitors.
“It’s exposure that’s incredibly valuable. It’s always led us to a spike in contributions, at the end of the last debate, the first hour after the last debate was the best fundraising day we’ve had in our entire campaign,” Booker said. “We missed out on that, which is frustrating.”
Later, on one of his two-hour drives through northwestern Iowa, Booker changed his tone about not being on stage.
“Something funny happened at this debate. When people found out I wasn’t on it, our online donations have gone through the roof, more than this, we started getting endorsements here in Iowa,” he said.
“We now lead the field, we’re the top of the pack in endorsements for local leaders in Iowa. We now are seeing ourselves get to this energy in the state that’s really exciting to us.”
Missing another debate might not be so detrimental, Booker said, to ultimately win the state.
“If you had told me back in June that we were going to miss a debate stage, I would have said, that would end the campaign…Now, it’s almost comical to me, to be frank,” Booker said. “I really do feel that we are going to upset in Iowa…Debate stage or not.”
Countless times during the weekend, Booker noted that John Kerry and John Edwards, in December of 2003, were polling 6th and 7th—at 4% and 2%, finishing first and second in the caucuses.
“One of the reasons I love Iowa is because you all have shown, forgive my language, in past election after past election, that you don’t give a damn about the national polls,” Booker said. “Obama was polling 15 to 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in December… And he came here, and won the Iowa caucuses.”
But that might be cherry-picking polls. By December 2003, in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Kerry drew 10%. RealClear Politics tracks Obama and Clinton polling the same, at 28.3 on December 24, 2007.
Despite these numbers, the fact remains that Booker is able to win over a crowd easier than most of his competitors, and is often able to invoke emotion and action from supporters—which may carry him through caucus night.
Greta Grond, a librarian from Hull, Iowa, attended one of Booker’s events in Sioux City on Saturday morning. She had already committed to caucus for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who at that point had also been spanning the state in a bus—set to hit 29 counties in three days.
Grond had never seen Booker speak. When we reconnected after his pitch, she said she doesn’t often have the sort of “feeling” she felt when listening to Booker when she sees other candidates.
“I really think it was his tone—very inspirational,” Grond said. “I am kind of a policy nerd, like I pay attention to that, which is what I’ve always really liked about Amy, that she’s very practical. This is maybe what I needed to hear more, and what a lot of America needs to hear more.”
Edward J. Shannon, an architect from Des Moines, was phone banking with the Senator while the debates were going on last Thursday.
“I saw him speak eight years ago at a leadership conference when he was mayor of Newark,” he said. “When he announced his candidacy, I was like, I think that’s the same guy. I had the program from the conference, and I was like, there he is!”
Booker made a profound impact on him, Shannon said. “I was so impressed.”
At an event in Adel, Iowa on Friday, the same event where Dallas County Democrats chair Bryce Smith announced he’s endorsing the candidate, Booker campaign volunteer and a Waukee resident Julie Stewart speculated why the Senator wasn’t moving up in the polls.
“People are scared. They’re afraid we won’t pick the right person to go up to Trump. And if somebody’s preaching love, they think that’s not going to get Trump,” she said.
If Booker wins on caucus night, or places within the top three candidates, despite how he’s polling, despite his absence from the debate stage, Stewart said she wouldn’t be surprised.
“Oh, there always is [a possibility that Booker might upset Iowa]. He’s got a good ground game. He’s got fantastic staffers. I’ve been involved with presidential candidates every four years, since 1976. This is the best batch of staffers, this crop of young people are dedicated. And we’ve got to hold onto him,” Stewart said.
But it’s Iowa, she laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the candidates win.”
by Isabella Murray