Ten minutes after Bryce Smith, the chairman of the Dallas County Democrats, found out Sen. Cory Booker, who he had endorsed, was dropping out of the 2020 presidential race, he received a phone call from another campaign.
“My grandmother, who was sitting at home and is an avid MSNBC watcher, was the first person to text me [Monday] when it was released,” Smith said. “In the next ten minutes, I was contacted by another campaign. It was the political director who contacted me and said, ‘We know that this candidate is second on your list, so we wanted you to know that we’re here and you have our support.'”
Several other Booker endorsers that Starting Line spoke with this week recalled similar experiences with varying, though mostly quick, timelines.
“I got a call from Pete Buttigieg on Monday afternoon,” said State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, an early Booker backer. “He did not ask for an endorsement, which I thought was the right call. He just said he had appreciated what I had done to help Cory as an endorser and he was sorry to see him out of the race … and that he hoped to stay in touch.”
Konfrst got a little bit of extra time to absorb the news, getting a call early Monday morning from Booker’s Iowa staff to inform her of the coming decision. The Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar campaigns reached out to her a few days later, with Biden’s specifically asking about an endorsement.
For others, though, more time was needed to fully process the end of Booker’s candidacy.
“I did hear from several friends who had been a little too fast to call,” Konfrst noted. “The body wasn’t cold. Let’s give me a minute.”
But such is the reality of the state of the Iowa Caucus race, now with less than 20 days to go, with multiple campaigns desperate for that last bloc of voters that could put them over the top in a field with no clear front-runner.
And while Booker never gained ground in the Iowa polls, his campaign had put together an impressive roster of experienced Iowa staffers and prominent local endorsers that are now free agents. They boasted the longest list of activist and local elected leader endorsements, including many of the experienced caucus leaders that know how to swing people over to their candidate in their precinct.
“He had people who knew Iowa inside and out,” Konfrst said. “That’s a lot of very valuable intelligence and also valuable enthusiasm that they could bring to the table. Those organizers, those activists, I mean again, we fell in love with Cory, so if they can somehow harness that enthusiasm here in the last few weeks, it could be game-changing. ”
In past caucus cycles, the amount of undecided activists in the final weeks can be slim pickings. It’s also been difficult for campaigns who have the money to ramp up in staffing near the end of the caucus to find experienced applicants who can accomplish anything more than adding to door-knocking capacity.
This time, with the number of candidates dropping out who had built up serious ground games, staffers who already developed local relationships with Iowans are available. Anecdotally, Starting Line has heard that Klobuchar’s campaign already hired up a good number of laid-off staff from Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris’ campaigns.
Things may be tougher, however, with the Iowa activists who had poured their heart and soul into Booker’s bid, a candidate who inspired deep loyalty from his supporters and staff.
“I’ve never invested myself in a campaign as much as I have with the Cory Booker campaign,” said recently-elected Urbandale City Councilmember Bridget Carberry Montgomery, who got calls from other campaigns within an hour of Booker’s Monday announcement.
She described Booker’s withdrawal as a “gut punch.”
“I’m kind of over the caucus,” she said. “I don’t know if I will make up my mind until I walk into the caucus room. As important as I feel Iowa is in the process, I’m ready to start working on our congressional and legislative races. I feel like I invested all I could. I will definitely caucus, but I don’t know who I will caucus for until I get there.”
Mike Weinard, a longtime Democratic activist from Iowa City, said he hasn’t felt much pressure to endorse anyone other than Booker so far.
“I’ve been thinking, wow, in the next three weeks, I’m probably going to have some time open that I would not have open and, oh lord, I haven’t sat down and read a book from cover to cover since last October,” Weinard said.
Marcia Nichols, a well-known Iowa activist and former labor leader, was still processing it all by mid-week.
“There wasn’t a time when I saw [Booker] and he didn’t ask how my mom was doing,” she said. “I was really, really disappointed. Somehow I thought the sky was going to break open and we were going to rush up to number two or something. I really did believe that. So I was sad. Very sad.”
So far, Nichols has been contacted by Biden and Klobuchar’s campaigns. The Biden team got her a meeting with John Kerry, who she served as Iowa political director for in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Norm Sterzenbach, a longtime friend of Nichols now working for Klobuchar, reached out on the Minnesota senator’s behalf.
“I told them I was waiting. I’m caucus chair in my precinct, and so maybe I can just go there and be impartial and decide at the last minute,” Nichols said. “I’m kind of surprised I haven’t heard from some of the others. But that’s OK. I can choose between two.”
Smith, the Dallas County chair, plans to still pledge his support to Booker on Feb. 3 during the first alignment into preference groups, but he’s not sure what he’ll do in round two.
“I’m going to write Cory Booker on my card,” Smith said. “You should be able to say this is who you want as your first choice for president, and I believe everyone should feel that way.”
He’s still debating who he will realign with. Smith said he’s discussing the matter with his husband and will likely reach out to other Booker supporters to see who their second choices are before making up his mind.
Iowa State Rep. Charlie McConkey of Council Bluffs managed to decide who he’d endorse next in less than 36 hours, backing Klobuchar and adding to her list of legislative endorsements in Iowa, the most of the field.
“Like Sen. Booker, Sen. Klobuchar has run a campaign with a positive, unifying message that will bring this country together — not divide us,” McConkey said, in a news release. “Sen. Klobuchar is committed to championing economic policies that give all Iowans and Americans an opportunity to succeed.
But for many others, they’ll join the significant ranks of Iowans who are literally waiting until the last minute to make up their minds, denying other campaigns that extra activist support at the end.
“I’m really wide open,” Weinard said. “I’m going to hear from people, but right now I don’t know that I’m going to make any decision right up to caucus night. I may not even know then what I’m going to do for sure.”
By Paige Godden and Pat Rynard