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Capitol Ideas: Solving the Cory Booker puzzle

Why is the charismatic senator mired in the bottom tier of presidential hopefuls?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey makes a joke comparing his lack of hair to that of mode
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey makes a joke comparing his lack of hair to that of moderator Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, during the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum on Dec. 7 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

Perhaps no candidate in this big Democratic presidential primary is more perplexing than Cory Booker.

Everywhere he goes, the U.S. senator from New Jersey lights up the room. He is a skilled orator, perhaps unmatched in the field. When he gives a speech, Iowa Democrats stand and cheer. Loudly.

And he’s polling at 2.3 percent.

It’s a mystifying dichotomy. Booker has done everything right: he was in the race early, he came here in 2018 to campaign for midterm candidates, and he has spent enough time in Iowa to make an impression.

And he does he make an impression.

Yet despite all that, Booker remains mired in the bottom tier in the polling on the race. As of Friday, his rolling average, as calculated by RealClearPolitics, was just 2.3 percent, well behind the front-runners who are in the high teens and low 20s.

Because of these struggles, Booker didn’t qualify for the December debate in Los Angeles. As with other candidates who suffered a similar fate in previous debates, he instead will come to Iowa on that day to kick off an open-press bus tour, according to his campaign.

Booker and his team still believe he has a chance to catch fire. They note — as candidates in this race often do — that John Kerry won the 2004 primary, and the caucuses, even though he was stuck in single digits in December. They also point to Booker’s campaign organization, which caucus observers have said is strong.

Mostly, they note the majority of Iowa Democrats who say they haven’t made up their mind yet.

The Booker campaign said it has enough money to make it to Feb. 3, so it seems unlikely he will drop out of the race. And the campaign is set to air its first TV ads in Iowa: a $500,000 buy, the campaign said.

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Booker’s struggles in the polls could become an asset if he is able to make a late surge. The Iowa caucuses are not just about results; they’re also about beating expectations.

If Booker goes into Feb. 3 down in the polls, then performs better than expected on caucus night, he could emerge from Iowa with a narrative that he is trending upward.

That’s what Booker’s campaign seems to be banking on. Booker’s campaign manager this past week told reporters his path to the nomination starts by overperforming expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, then carrying that momentum to other early voting states, where the senator can appeal to more diverse populations.

“We still see a path to victory for the Democratic nomination that does not have the December debate as a requirement,” Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie said. “Our path to victory has always been through February ... those voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina are the ones who are going to ultimately be the ones who point us toward the finalist and who the Democratic nominee is going to be.”

Demissie said South Carolina is the proving ground for Booker, who the campaign believes will perform well with black voters there.

But before South Carolina can matter to Booker, he must do well in Iowa.

Team Booker knows it, too.

“To prove viability to South Carolina voters, we have to do well in the three states that come before it,” Demissie said.

That starts with Iowa, where Democrats already love Cory Booker. They just aren’t yet supporting him in the polls.

Booker and his team have seven weeks to change that.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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