Inside Cory Booker's underdog campaign to win Iowa

Former 2020 presidential candidate Cory Booker says he got his BA from Stanford and his PhD on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. He ran for president on a platform of fighting hate with love.

Posted: Jan 13, 2020 1:00 PM
Updated: Jan 13, 2020 1:00 PM

Sen. Cory Booker was fielding the usual voter questions in northwestern Iowa on Friday, capping off a day of schlepping across 200 miles of fertile caucus land, when a man asked him "The Question."

You've probably heard the question, and his campaign team certainly has, if they haven't asked it of themselves. It has inspired an untold number of think pieces and perhaps come to define Booker's bid for president.

"Why do you think his campaign is gaining traction and yours hasn't?" the man in Sioux City asked.

In this case, the other candidate was South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has bypassed more experienced and well-known rivals to seize the lead in Iowa. But it could have been anyone, really: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, perhaps, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Even entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Those candidates -- along with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and businessman Tom Steyer -- shared a stage that week in Los Angeles, the site of the sixth Democratic primary debate. For the first time, however, Booker wasn't among them.

Instead, having failed to meet the polling threshold to qualify, he touched down in Iowa on Thursday for the first of five days of campaign stops, four of which would be spent crisscrossing the state by bus. If Booker couldn't fight for the Democratic nomination on the debate stage, he would do it here, one town at a time.

The bus gleamed in the parking lot of his Urbandale office, freshly wrapped in the campaign's signature black and red and white and bright comic-book blue, symbolizing a new phase for what has been an austere campaign. Booker's first television ad aired Thursday during the debate; Buttigieg, for example, has spent or reserved $6.7 million on TV in Iowa alone. And while other, better funded candidates have been zooming around Iowa for months in flashy branded buses, Booker has settled for more humble transportation in large vans or RVs.

But now he had a flashy bus of his own, the left side crowded with colorful stickers paying tribute to grassroots supporters who had helped pay for it.

On Friday morning, Booker's staff filmed him emerging from the campaign office to glimpse the "Bookmobile," as he would jokingly call it later. He clapped and grinned widely, channeling a child on Christmas morning, although he had seen the bus the previous night and taped a TV hit in front of it before dawn.

The moment might have been an ideal picture of a campaign at full speed, gunning for Iowa in the final weeks before the caucuses, but for one smudge: the debate that Booker wasn't a part of, and the unanswered question of whether he would stand a chance without it.

Booker and his team took pains during the debate to show they were thriving without it. But if they wanted to change the subject, voters did not. As he slid into a chair to phone-bank among campaign volunteers and organizers, Booker's first call was to a woman named Suzette, who expressed her disappointment that the New Jersey senator was not on stage in Los Angeles. Like many Iowans, she had not yet made up her mind about whom she would support; but she said Booker was at the top of her list.

It was more of the same as Booker hit the road the next morning. At a bowling alley in Adel, Iowa, Maribeth Arentsen felt moved to share her frustration with Booker over the debate process.

"His passion impacted me," Arentsen explained, adding that she had never spoken up at a campaign event before. "We need somebody who can really inspire people."

She marveled, meanwhile, that a candidate as qualified as Booker might not get a full hearing from voters. "He's not just a mayor from South Bend who hasn't done anything," she said.

On Friday, however, Booker's return to the stage became even less likely, with the Democratic National Committee announcing higher polling and donor thresholds for the January debate in Iowa. Although Booker has exceeded the required number of donors, he would need to earn 5% in four polls, or 7% in two early state polls. He has not hit 5% in a national poll since March.

Even if Booker were to surge in the next few weeks, we might not see it. The rate of polling has slowed to a crawl during the holidays, especially in the early states where Booker has focused his resources. "It's awful," Booker remarked to reporters on the bus, as it hurtled down the highway from Adel to Fort Dodge.

But he also stressed that he believes it doesn't matter -- a pronounced shift.

"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," Booker said. "Now, it's almost comical to me, to be frank."

"I really do feel that we are going to upset in Iowa," he added. "Debate stage or not."

One reason this doesn't look like the end of the road for Booker is because he's still winning endorsements on the ground, a clear sign that Iowans, at least, see a campaign with fuel left in the tank.

Bryce Smith, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, had recently narrowed his list of top candidates down to Buttigieg and Booker. Then, a couple weeks ago, he went to see Booker in person during one of his Iowa stops.

After Booker spoke, "I was darn near in tears," Smith said. He announced his support for Booker on Friday in Adel. Penny Rosfjord, a key Iowa Democratic activist who previously endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, helped introduce Booker in Sioux City on Friday. She's now seriously considering throwing her support behind the New Jersey Democrat, she said, with one other candidate whom she declined to name also under consideration.

And she certainly isn't counting Booker out.

"I think he's right about the polls," Rosfjord said. "Iowans will make this decision."

But the candidates who are often mentioned in the same breath as Booker on the ground in Iowa -- frequently Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg -- have also been showering the state with attention and gaining more traction. This weekend, Klobuchar was also rolling around the state in her campaign's bright green bus. Buttigieig, meanwhile, drew a large crowd for an event with the actor Kevin Costner, of "Field of Dreams" fame, who announced his support for the mayor.

Back on the bus, Booker equated his challenge in Iowa with his most memorable football game as a college athlete, when Booker's then-unranked Stanford toppled powerful Notre Dame at home.

"Who is Notre Dame in the context of this primary?" reporters on the bus wondered. Booker wouldn't go there, but he didn't have to. Of course it was the "talented young man" from South Bend.

That was how Booker would describe Buttigieg later, in Sioux City. Which brings us back to The Question.

Booker did not try to explain why he has "languished" -- often the verb of choice in media reports -- in the low single-digits or why he might not make another debate stage in this primary.

"What our campaign talks about all the time is, we started this campaign with a message, and we've been driving that message the whole campaign," Booker said.

"I can't speak to Pete Buttigieg's campaign," he added. "I know this for a fact: I'm the best person in the field to inspire the coalitions we need to win."

But what if we've been asking the wrong question?

Booker decided a long time ago what campaign he was going to run, and very little has changed since he launched his candidacy February 1.

"I'm running for spiritual reasons," Booker stressed in Sioux City. "Not for religious reasons, but the values of our country." As president, he added, he would see his role as that of "a pastor of sorts (to) try to lead us to a moral high ground as a people."

Why he hasn't surged, or will he ever? He believes that's a question for everyone else -- and, first, for Iowa.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 448268

Reported Deaths: 6013
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin931011480
Ramsey40016739
Dakota33072340
Anoka30999364
Washington20164228
Stearns17871187
St. Louis13690241
Scott1195496
Wright11614104
Olmsted1048475
Sherburne821365
Carver694836
Clay653280
Rice606868
Kandiyohi554371
Blue Earth541033
Crow Wing482774
Otter Tail457167
Chisago452732
Benton420186
Winona389646
Douglas374166
Nobles370846
Mower365529
Goodhue347958
Polk328658
McLeod325345
Morrison311744
Beltrami310347
Lyon302236
Becker284939
Itasca284543
Isanti282841
Carlton280043
Steele27379
Pine266713
Freeborn245321
Todd231730
Nicollet224636
Brown215134
Mille Lacs214246
Le Sueur210015
Cass207623
Meeker199733
Waseca189316
Wabasha17083
Martin170026
Roseau165416
Hubbard149338
Redwood139727
Renville137539
Houston135913
Dodge13474
Chippewa131332
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Fillmore12355
Wadena120116
Rock110212
Sibley10857
Aitkin108433
Watonwan10668
Faribault105916
Pennington99215
Kanabec97818
Pipestone94423
Yellow Medicine93714
Murray8815
Jackson85610
Swift83418
Pope7385
Marshall70215
Stevens7018
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65716
Lake63715
Wilkin6259
Koochiching59610
Lincoln4841
Big Stone4573
Unassigned43768
Grant4298
Norman4248
Mahnomen4107
Kittson37219
Red Lake3174
Traverse2503
Lake of the Woods1951
Cook1140

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 305606

Reported Deaths: 4278
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45754449
Linn17795275
Scott15444163
Black Hawk13773236
Woodbury13016175
Johnson1211749
Dubuque11387150
Pottawattamie8992112
Dallas888671
Story869434
Webster469771
Cerro Gordo466768
Sioux455157
Clinton450361
Warren443938
Marshall427761
Buena Vista393429
Muscatine390477
Des Moines381841
Plymouth350368
Wapello344198
Jasper321959
Lee317130
Marion304952
Jones271349
Henry264330
Carroll255434
Bremer245048
Crawford231022
Boone218417
Washington217632
Benton209444
Mahaska193136
Jackson192031
Tama187757
Dickinson186026
Delaware173736
Kossuth173644
Clay168820
Wright164824
Fayette162322
Hamilton160029
Buchanan159923
Winneshiek155719
Harrison155162
Hardin154729
Cedar153219
Clayton151448
Butler148224
Page144715
Floyd139636
Cherokee139027
Mills136416
Lyon135332
Poweshiek132724
Hancock130224
Allamakee127928
Iowa125422
Calhoun12279
Grundy121226
Jefferson120724
Madison12039
Winnebago119429
Mitchell116234
Louisa115030
Cass113341
Chickasaw111612
Sac111215
Emmet110831
Appanoose110538
Union108822
Humboldt105519
Guthrie103024
Shelby102926
Franklin102418
Unassigned9310
Palo Alto9079
Montgomery85622
Keokuk85026
Howard84219
Monroe81218
Clarke7957
Pocahontas77611
Ida74630
Greene6927
Davis69121
Adair68820
Lucas6508
Monona64016
Osceola6409
Worth6113
Taylor5949
Fremont5126
Van Buren49712
Decatur4894
Ringgold4389
Audubon4158
Wayne41421
Adams2963
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