Iowans like Cory Booker, but he has yet to surge in the polls, and no one really knows why
Amy Keiderling is exactly who Cory Booker’s presidential campaign is looking for as he seeks to build momentum in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
The Waukee small business owner listened to Booker’s remarks in an Adel bowling alley recently — Booker's first stop of a four-day bus tour across Iowa. She said he gives her the same feeling she had when she caucused for Barack Obama.
He's the first candidate she’s seen in person this cycle, but before she left, she committed to caucus for the U.S. senator from New Jersey.
She isn’t alone. Tess Seger, a campaign spokeswoman, said Booker surpassed his 10% average of caucus commitments at each of his tour stops. Sometimes 20% or 30% of the crowd signed the commitment cards.
“We’re getting the people who are going to be caucusing for us, precinct captaining for us,” Booker told the Register on Monday. “It’s really exciting. This is how you win here.”
But, so far, Booker is a far short from the winner's circle. In the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, conducted in November by Selzer & Co., Booker earned 3% support among likely Democratic caucusgoers. He's been at or below 4% in first choice preferences in the Iowa Poll since 2018.
Iowans who’ve followed Booker's campaign or attended his recent events have their theories on why he hasn't taken off. Maybe the polling is off. Maybe Booker’s message isn’t working or his organizers haven’t reached enough caucusgoers. Or maybe people are still picking from a still-large candidate field.
Sue Dvorsky, a former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party who endorsed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential bid, said Booker may perform better in the Feb. 3 caucuses than his polling now indicates.
“He is well-known in Iowa, he has been helpful here and he has been here a lot,” she said. “It should not surprise people to see him outperform both his state polling numbers and the national polling numbers. He will outperform those.”
Why hasn’t he gained more support?
Scott McNabb, a former University of Iowa professor, saw Booker speak recently in Newton. He said Booker is an eloquent speaker, has a signature legislative accomplishment — the First Step Act, a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms — and has hired a large field staff. He can’t figure out why Booker hasn’t amassed more support.
“It’s a mystery to me,” McNabb said. “... I think he richly deserves more support.”
McNabb himself is still trying to decide between Booker and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Others during Booker's most recent Iowa swing were similarly torn.
“I like him more now after hearing him speak ‘cause I was pretty strong on (U.S. Sen. Elizabeth) Warren, and now I’m trying to decide,” said Jordan Pederson, a Grinnell native who attends college in Boston, where she’ll attend a satellite caucus.
Throughout his trip, Booker mentioned sticking to his message of the power of love rather than attacking his fellow Democratic candidates or President Donald Trump. He joked in Indianola that people have called him the “playground monitor” as other Democrats, his friends, begin to criticize each other.
“I’m confident in my ideas. I want to talk about policy, but you all know this: We have lost many elections with people who had better 15-point policy plans than the other person,” he told about 75 people in Newton.
Dvorsky wondered if the messaging is what’s holding back an otherwise “star quality” candidate.
“I’m not sure that Cory Booker’s fundamentally hopeful, loving language is doing it,” she said. But she does believe Booker's message is authentic.
Iowans say Booker's speeches do connect.
He has made listeners cry, Dvorsky among them, when sharing stories about his own and his family’s past. In Indianola, the crowd at Corner Sundry was rapt as he spoke of a Newark gunshot victim dying in his arms.
Then there's the tale of the “conspiracy of love” that helped his parents purchase the home he grew up in. When a real estate agent wouldn’t sell to his parents because of their race, white volunteers posed as homebuyers to prove the agent's discrimination.
“I think he needs to get out (more), because when people hear what he has to say, he inspires,” said Kathy Getting, the chair of the Hamilton County Democrats, who listened to Booker in Fort Dodge.
Surging at the right moment
Booker has argued for months that he’ll peak at the right time.
Unable to qualify for the December debate, he phone-banked in Iowa that night instead. The next day, he climbed aboard a campaign bus with reporters, asking them to remember their favorite Christmas gifts and trying, in vain, to make them sing carols. (Those who didn’t sing along earned a jokingly scornful look from actor Rosario Dawson, Booker’s girlfriend, via video chat.)
Often sitting next to him between bus stops were some of his Statehouse endorsers: Iowa state Reps. Kenan Judge, Jennifer Konfrst, Heather Matson and Amy Nielsen.
“I can tell you on the ground in Iowa that Cory is rising, and you can feel it,” Judge said.
Dvorsky said those legislators can help sway their precincts on caucus night, helping Booker outperform his polling results.
“There will be people who it matters what those legislators think as they’re trying to make these complicated decisions,” she said.
During the recent tour, Booker compared himself to eventual Democratic nominees and contenders who initially polled low before finishing at or near the top of the caucus field: the likes of John Edwards, John Kerry and Barack Obama.
But he confused some poll results in making that point to a crowd at a brewery in Fort Dodge, even saying Obama was still more than 10 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton at this point in 2008.
Archives of the Iowa Poll tell a different story. Obama had overtaken Clinton in early December 2007, 28% to 25%.
John Edwards in 2004 may be the model Booker is trying to emulate. Edwards registered 5% support in an early November 2003 Iowa Poll. Two months later, the Iowa Poll had him at 23%, and he eventually finished second in the caucuses behind Kerry.
Could the same happen for Booker?
“I don’t know,” said Getting, the Hamilton County Democrats' chair. “There are some people who are already committed, but I think we could change our minds. Doesn’t really count until Feb. 3.”
Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8398. Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal.