The first question Cory Booker was asked as a candidate outside his home on a frigid Friday last February was about his campaign message: Was a message of love tough enough to take on Donald Trump?
Love isn’t easy, Booker said, but the people he admired most, like Alice Paul, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, led with love.
“I believe in these values,” Booker said then. “I’m gonna put them before the American people. Hey, and if that’s not what they want, then I won’t be the next president of the United States.”
Booker accepted that reality Monday, when a campaign that drew dozens of national and local reporters to a Newark neighborhood on its Feb. 1 launch day ended in an email and Medium post before any votes were cast.
By most accounts, Booker was a great messenger with a unique résumé: a skilled orator who once saved a woman from a burning house, an All-American athlete who played football at Stanford, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a graduate of Yale Law who rose from city council to become one of three African Americans currently serving in the U.S. Senate.
But in the era of Trump — and heightened anxiety among Democratic voters — love wasn’t enough.
“Cory and I have had this conversation. Cory is not gonna change who he is to win an election,” said South Carolina state Rep. John King, who had endorsed Booker. “He believes in love, but it’s a reality that Trump has corrupted the political arena and the minds of many Americans. That you have to be a fighter is what a lot of Democrats are thinking. They want someone who’s gonna be tough and who’s gonna go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, and while I know Cory would, Cory would do that in love and not at the detriment of embarrassing this country, himself or his family.”
South Carolina state Rep. Annie McDaniel, another Booker endorser, said some supporters thought he was too nice, a side effect of a campaign operating on love.
“But if he had come out acting like a bull in a china shop then they would’ve called him the angry black man,” McDaniel cautioned.
She said Booker got his statesmanlike disposition through his upbringing and continues to prove he has the temperament to be president. “There were a few occasions where he appeared to come out swinging,” she noted, “but he still did it in a very diplomatic way.”
Booker told supporters “with a full heart” Monday morning that he was ending his campaign. The New Jersey Democrat, who will instead seek reelection to his Senate seat, said he no longer saw a path to winning the Democratic nomination for president due to a lack of financial resources.
His exit from the 2020 race comes ahead of Tuesday’s debate in Iowa — he failed to meet the polling threshold in every approved survey to participate. It also comes near the beginning of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, which would have taken him off the campaign trail in the crucial early states at a time when he was hoping to surge.
“It was a difficult decision to make, but I got in this race to win, and I’ve always said I wouldn’t continue if there was no longer a path to victory,” Booker said. “Our campaign has reached the point where we need more money to scale up and continue building a campaign that can win — money we don’t have, and money that is harder to raise because I won’t be on the next debate stage and because the urgent business of impeachment will rightly be keeping me in Washington.”
Booker launched his campaign last year on Feb. 1 — the first day of Black History Month — aiming to become the nation’s second black president. His message emphasized love and unity, and his campaign strategy prioritized organizing on the ground in the early states, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina.
“If someone would’ve told me this time a year ago that Kamala Harris and Cory Booker would’ve not made it to Iowa, I would’ve thought that person was crazy,” said South Carolina state Rep. JA Moore, a former co-chair for Harris’ presidential campaign in the state. “I think if you ask anybody, Cory Booker had the best campaign staff in both Iowa and South Carolina. I think the challenging part was that the resources that he needed to compete this late in the game just weren’t there.”
With so many other well-known candidates in the race, fundraising was consistently an issue for Booker, whose campaign reported raising $6.6 million in the final three months of 2019 while the front-runners boasted sums of more than $20 million each. Booker had also warned supporters in September that he would be forced to end his campaign unless it raised $1.7 million in 10 days, a gambit that proved successful at the time.
Despite securing a significant number of endorsements across the early states, Booker never caught on with voters — he was mired in the low single digits in public polling. His peak came in March, when he hit 5 percent in a national Monmouth poll.
Columbia, S.C., City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who also serves as mayor pro tem, held and participated in events with several candidates over the past year. After staying neutral throughout the race, she said she planned to finally announce her endorsement over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend: She was going to back Booker.
“The most common conversation [about Booker in Iowa] was, ‘I can’t believe this guy isn’t doing better in the polls,‘” said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa. “It’s easier to point to the things they were doing right [than wrong]. He had a lot of legislative endorsements. He was getting crowds. I think his message probably needed to be a little more focused and a little sharper.”
“The most common conversation [about Booker in Iowa] was, ‘I can’t believe this guy isn’t doing better in the polls.”
– Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa
Booker sought to copy Barack Obama’s playbook of winning Iowa and South Carolina and riding that momentum to the nomination while inspiring a diverse, multiracial coalition of voters to win the White House in November. His message of love and unity was also similar to Obama’s themes of hope and change.
Unlike Obama, however, Booker failed to lay a foundation by burnishing his bipartisan and foreign policy credentials before turning to his campaign themes, Link said, suggesting Booker didn’t talk enough early on about his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his bipartisan work on criminal justice reform and opportunity zones.
Booker’s campaign scaled back its New Hampshire presence in November and December as it prioritized Iowa and South Carolina. The campaign closed one of its three offices in New Hampshire weeks ago and moved its press secretary to South Carolina and its organizing director to headquarters, forcing other staffers to pick up their responsibilities.
Still, Booker had lined up an impressive list of elected officials who were backing him in the first-in-the-nation primary state. They said voters just needed to meet him to like him. But without that face time — his 12 trips to New Hampshire were less than half as many as almost all the top-tier candidates — he never broke out from the bottom of the pack.
Booker’s departure could put a spotlight on his large list of endorsements, as the remaining candidates court them in the lead-up to the first four contests, beginning Feb. 3 in Iowa.
“Booker had enough support in this poll that we were able to reassign his voters to their second choice candidates,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, tweeted ahead of the poll’s Monday’s release. “They pretty much evenly scattered across the top contenders.”
Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, said she was struck by the narrative that the white top tier of candidates are more electable than candidates like Booker. She recalled that Obama, then a senator, won election in 2008 and was reelected in 2012.
“In Pete Buttigieg’s case, he’s a prolific fundraiser — think of the amount of money he’s raised — and yet he’s politically less electable than someone like Cory Booker because he’s not resonating with black voters, without whom he cannot win a primary or the White House,” Allison said. “He wasn’t a senator. He was the mayor of a small town. So if you just compare that, those two things, you realize how the narrative of electability acts as a bludgeon for campaigns who are trying to gain momentum in this environment.”
In interviews, black leaders differed on the role race has played in the primary.
“The bottom line is that people didn’t go for Cory Booker because we already elected one black president and it’ll be a while before we elect another one. He’s got all of the credentials, when you line him up beside any of the other candidates, except for the fact that he’s black,” McDaniel said. “That’s what a lot of people told me personally.”
“The bottom line is that people didn’t go for Cory Booker because we already elected one black president and it’ll be a while before we elect another one.”
– South Carolina state Rep. Annie McDaniel
McDaniel added that it’s not just that black voters thought Booker needed white validators before they could get behind his campaign. Even some black voters, she said, thought Booker was unelectable because America already had one black president.
King said he doesn’t believe in the notion that white candidates are viewed as more electable — because Booker wouldn’t be a senator and King wouldn’t be a member of the statehouse if that were the case. But he blamed the media for perpetuating the idea, and the Democratic Party for allowing it to fester.
Moore similarly said he disagrees with the idea that Booker needed white validators before black voters could support him, framing it as an injustice to local black leaders like himself and fellow state Reps. Marlon Kimpson and Marvin Pendarvis.
Black leaders are disappointed that Booker, Harris and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro are no longer in the race, though there are mixed assessments about the Democratic National Committee’s role in narrowing the field with increasingly stringent polling and donor thresholds.
“What has always been true is that the system has been designed for people of color to have challenges in doing everything, from running for president to running a successful business,” Moore said. “The system is designed to keep people that are in power, in power. And the majority of the people in this country, unfortunately, that are in power don’t look like me, don’t look like Julián Castro, don’t look like Cory Booker nor Kamala Harris. They’re the exception, not the rule.”
King added that the party is putting itself at a disadvantage by allowing all white candidates to debate Tuesday, depriving Democratic voters of diverse perspectives.
“If we have people who are bold enough to put their names out there to run for office, they should have an opportunity to debate,” he argued. “They don’t have a threshold when someone runs against me. They don’t have a threshold when someone runs for governor. They don’t have a threshold when someone runs for U.S. Senate.”
Allison said with Booker’s departure from the race she’s worried that the field of candidates no longer represents the Democratic Party’s base: black women. She warned that the remaining campaigns should continue organizing and prioritizing diverse communities to turn out a multi-racial coalition on Election Day instead of focusing on white moderates and conservative voters.
Like Harris and Castro before him, Booker’s allies also paint him as a contender for the vice presidential nod, regardless of who wins the nomination. Booker was on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for VP in 2016, though she ultimately tapped the white, moderate, Spanish-speaking Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
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“That’s the kiss of death,” Allison said, looking ahead to the summer convention. “An all-white ticket’s not gonna fly.”
With Booker no longer running for president, only one black candidate remains: former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has struggled to gain traction after launching a bid in mid-November. Harris, once a top-tier candidate herself, suspended her campaign ahead of last month’s debate, also citing money as an issue.
Trump mocked Booker’s departure shortly after it was announced.
“Really Big Breaking News (Kidding): Booker, who was in zero polling territory, just dropped out of the Democrat Presidential Primary Race,” the president tweeted. “Now I can rest easy tonight. I was sooo concerned that I would someday have to go head to head with him!”
Booker didn’t punch back.
Trent Spiner contributed to this report.