- Sen. Cory Booker‘s 2020 presidential campaign is struggling to take off even though he is widely liked.
- Since he first announced his campaign in February, Booker has attempted to position himself as the “love candidate.” Booker is widely liked among supporters of top-tier candidates.
- Over 25% of Bernie Sanders‘ supporters, 32% of Elizabeth Warren‘s supporters and 30% of Joe Biden‘s supporters all said they liked Booker in Insider’s most recent poll.
- The problem? On average, people who support Booker also like at least six other candidates.
- Insider data seems to suggest that most people do genuinely like Booker but that in 2020 being liked simply isn’t enough on its own for a secure shot at the election.
Sen. Cory Booker‘s floundering 2020 presidential bid shows how simply being likable may not be enough to win an election.
According to Insider polling, 59% of Democratic voters know who Booker is and 34% of them say they would be satisfied with him as the nominee. What’s more, about 20% of Democratic primary voters overall say they would be satisfied with Booker as the nominee.
Despite all that support, the 50-year-old senator is polling at just about 3% in the latest Morning Consult poll. That’s good for sixth place. In fact, Booker’s campaign has hovered between 2% and 5% support for the past 10 months.
Several times each month since last December, Insider asked more than 1,100 respondents about the Democratic field, specifically whether they’d be satisfied or unsatisfied with each of the known primary candidates as the nominee. More details on what we poll and what we ask can be found here.
The love candidate
If Booker was looking for love, then that plan largely worked! Just about everyone planning to vote in the Democratic primary really does appear to like Booker, even if he’s not their first choice.
Nearly a third of former Vice President Joe Biden‘s supporters say they like Booker, according to Insider polling, while 25.7% of Sen. Bernie Sanders‘ supporters like Booker. Among Sen. Elizabeth Warren‘s supporters the love is even greater for Booker, at 32%.
Even the supporters of candidates polling worse than him, who would presumably have an even greater incentive to see Booker fail, still like him. Sixty-nine per cent of voters in support of Julián Castro, for example, say they like Booker.
While being acceptable to everyone may seem like a strength, it may also be a weakness.
Voters who say they are satisfied with Booker, according to Insider polling, are satisfied, on average with six other candidates. Compare that with Sanders supporters, who as of last month on average said they were satisfied with only three other candidates. That leaves Booker in the undesirable position of being universally liked but with very little die-hard support.
To use a tired metaphor: Booker is like the Heineken of Democratic presidential candidates.
There’s also some evidence of trouble brewing among the cohort of Democratic voters in Booker’s camp. Of the 527 respondents who said they liked Booker in Insider’s most recent poll, a staggering 80% of them also said they liked Warren.
While Warren’s campaign has seemingly stepped off the gas in recent weeks, the Massachusetts senator has locked herself in as a top-tier candidate. If eight out of every 10 Booker candidates also like Warren, how much longer are they willing to be pulled along by a candidate polling at 3% before they decide to cut and run? The answer to that question may hedge strongly on whether Booker makes a splash in Wednesday’s Democratic debate.
The death of love
For the entirety of his campaign, Booker has made a clear, explicit attempt to brand himself as “the love candidate.” ANew York magazine cover story on Booker released in September last year described Booker’s senate offices as happy, jolly, and filled with exuberant staffers handing out candy and smiles. The word “love” was used 12 times in that story.
While Booker has largely claimed the mantle of the love candidate, he’s not the only one on the campaign trail to try it. Over the past 10 months, the back-bench candidate Marianne Williamson, the early exiter Beto O’Rourke, and the out-of-nowhere surprise success story Pete Buttigieg have all flirted with some form of a nonnegative campaign.
O’Rourke, for example, started his presidential campaign by taking the moral high road and refusing to engage in personal attacks against both fellow Democrats and Republicans.
“This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country,” O’Rourke cheerily said during his announcement video.
Almost immediately, O’Rourke’s support plummeted.
That steep declined would be halted only in August, following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, when O’Rourke emotionally spoke out against assault-style weapons, hurled expletives, and openly called President Donald Trump a white supremacist. O’Rourke’s pivot away from positivity coincided with a brief resurgence in the polls, but it was too little too late. By November 1, O’Rourke had dropped out.
Buttigieg, whose early campaign was similarly positive and noncombative, has pivoted sharply.
From April to October, the percentage of people aware of Buttigieg who supported him dropped to 49% from 62%, setting off alarm bells among his supporters. In the October CNN/New York Times debate, Buttigieg went in swinging and attacked Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on foreign policy, chided O’Rourke on gun policy, and prodded Warren to ask whether her “Medicare for All” plan would increase middle-class taxes. The plan worked. Buttigieg is now by some accounts a top-tier candidate.
Then there’s Williamson, who has said she’s “going to harness a love for political purposes.” Williamson is tied for dead last and has been for months.
All of those cases potentially leave Booker facing a troubling trajectory.
The senator has worked hard, and succeeded, in becoming a well-known and well-liked name. He has few enemies, and Democratic voters, regardless of who their first choice is, tend to really like Booker. But they just don’t like him enough to be their first choice. And with a field of 16 candidates (and potentially more joining in) being likable, or even loveable, isn’t enough to stand out from the crowd.
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