Skip to main content
Menu
How Cory Booker Could Win The 2020 Democratic Nomination

A charismatic, liberal-but-not-super-liberal black man is running for president. He has degrees from two of America’s most prestigious universities. He was a community organizer before serving in elected office. He was touted very early in his career as the potential first black president. He served a stint in local government before becoming one of the very few African-Americans ever elected to the U.S. Senate. And he is running on a message of optimism.1 Cory Booker announced that he is running for president via a video on Friday morning. He and Barack Obama are different people, of course — their resumes and race notwithstanding — but Booker’s most obvious electoral path to the Democratic nomination and the presidency is the same one Obama followed over a decade ago.

In 2008, Obama won the Democratic primary, in part, by running up huge margins among African-Americans and younger voters. His early opposition to the Iraq War gave him credibility with the liberal wing of the party. He pointed to his potential appeal with independents and Republicans to win over more establishment-oriented Democrats who prioritized electability. Obama’s win in Iowa, where the Democratic electorate is overwhelmingly white, was critical. That win helped convince establishment Democrats and, in particular, black voters that he was a viable national candidate, leading Obama to carry states in the South with large black electorates.

I’m not saying Booker can or will replicate that path — in fact, he’ll likely have a tough time with parts of it. But in exploring how the New Jersey senator could win, the Obama road map is a good place to start.

How Booker could win

Let’s use the five key blocs in the Democratic electorate laid out by my colleague Nate Silver: Asian and Hispanic voters, Black voters, The Left, Millennials and Friends, and Party Loyalists. With the 2020 field likely to be so big, we won’t try to predict exactly how these groups will vote, but we can make some educated guesses about which groups Booker could most appeal to.

Being black gives Booker a direct connection to African-American voters. But his potential appeal with black voters comes down to more than his racial identity. Booker served as a city council member then mayor in majority-black Newark, New Jersey. As a senator, Booker was a leading figure in pushing for a criminal justice reform bill that was signed into law in December.

Booker would also make a more than acceptable nominee to Party Loyalists. For one, he’s a sitting senator, firmly enmeshed in the Democratic establishment. Moreover, over the last two years, high-profile Democratic candidates like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Alabama’s Doug Jones have brought Booker in to campaign for them, suggesting that other Democrats believe he has appeal. And if this bloc is particularly concerned about finding a candidate they perceive as able to win the general election, Booker’s electability case is obvious: America voted for someone kind of like him in 2008 and 2012. (Though I assume Booker will never actually say this out loud.)

There is no reason to think that Booker will be the candidate for Asian or Hispanic voters in the Democratic primary. But Booker doesn’t have any obvious downsides for those groups either. And he has experience appealing to and serving Asian and Hispanic voters; the population of New Jersey, where Booker won Senate elections in 2013 and 20142 includes a higher percentage of Asian (10 percent) and Latino (20 percent) residents than the nation overall. He also speaks Spanish.

Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine Booker appealing to Millennials. He’s relatively young (49), and if elected he would make history as the first vegan president — not many Americans are vegan, but those who are tend to be young and liberal. But more importantly, I think Booker could follow the model used by Obama and then Bernie Sanders in 2016 of appealing to young voters by running as the candidate of change and, to some extent, idealism. Booker ran against the entrenched political establishment in Newark, losing his first mayoral campaign in 2002 in a contest that was dramatic enough that there is a Netflix documentary about it. As mayor, Booker lived in in a run-down building as a kind of act of solidarity with the city’s low-income residents. He also shoveled the snow out of an elderly man’s driveway after the man’s daughter alerted Booker via Twitter that the resident needed help, and he literally rescued a woman from her burning house. Of late, the senator has talked about how America could you use a “new civic gospel, and a gospel of love.” I could see him running as kind of the idealist-in-chief — and that could appeal to idealistic millennials.

That just leaves The Left, but let’s come back to that group — it’s potentially Booker’s biggest weak spot among the five blocs.

You could imagine Booker’s general optimistic message — I don’t think any politician uses the word “love” more than the New Jersey senator — working in the Iowa caucuses that start off the primary process. Iowa embraced Obama when he ran on a similar message, after all. A strong showing in the caucuses would establish Booker as one of the top candidates as the Democratic contest moved to states in the South, where a high percentage of the voters are black.

Black Democrats in early primary states

Share of Democratic electorate who identified as black according to exit and entrance polls, ordered by tentative 2020 primary date*

State Est. Primary month black voters
Iowa Feb. 3%
New Hampshire Feb. 2
Nevada Feb. 13
South Carolina Feb. 61
Alabama March 54
Massachusetts March 4
North Carolina March 32
Oklahoma March 14
Tenneessee March 32
Texas March 19
Vermont March 1
Virginia March 26
Michigan March 21
Mississippi March 71
Missouri March 21
Ohio March 20
Florida March 27
Illinois March 28
Wisconsin April 10
Connecticut April 15
Maryland April 46
Pennsylvania April 19
Indiana May 19
West Virginia May 3
Arkansas May 27
Georgia 51
New York 22

Includes only states for which a 2016 exit or entrance poll was available.

* States are ordered by expected primary date according to Frontloading HQ. There is some uncertainty about the primary dates for Georgia and New York, so they are listed at the bottom.

Sources: CNN, Frontloading HQ

If the field was winnowed to something like Booker vs. former Vice President Joe Biden (or another older and more moderate Democrat), Booker could win largely by dominating among black voters and younger Democrats, as Obama did in defeating Clinton in 2008. But I could also see Booker emerging victorious in a contest that came down to him and a candidate of the left (Sanders, say, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren) by winning voters in big cities and among minorities and more moderate Democrats, as Clinton did in defeating Sanders in 2016. Booker has the potential to appeal to a wide range of Democrats because he is moderate in tone (the senator emphasizes that he does not “hate” Trump) but fairly liberal on policy (in 2017-2018, he opposed Trump’s positions more often than all but four other senators).

“I expect Cory to have the resources and infrastructure to compete in all of the early states, and his campaigning on behalf of other Democrats has helped him build relationships in important places,” said Kevin Griffis, who was Obama’s South Carolina communications director in 2008 and then served as an adviser to Booker, both on his Senate campaign in 2013 and on Capitol Hill.

“I expect him to attract broad interest, particularly among African-American voters and young people, and I think he will attract new and disaffected voters who are looking for a positive message and messenger,” added Griffis, who is not working on Booker’s 2020 campaign.

Why Booker might lose

There’s also a pretty strong and clear case against Booker’s electoral chances. Obama carried black voters overwhelmingly in 2008, winning, for example, more than 80 percent of the black vote in several heavily black states. But that was in a race where there was not another major black candidate in the field, and at a time when no African-American had ever been nominated by a major party, let alone elected president. Post-Obama, black voters may not feel like they need to mobilize behind black presidential candidates to make history or as a sign of racial loyalty.

And Booker has two obvious rivals for the African-American vote. Biden, if he runs, could appeal to black voters based on his close relationship with Obama and his more moderate ideology, which echoes the views of many African-Americans. And in Kamala Harris, Booker could face not only another formidable black candidate, but one who has a potential advantage over him in wooing African-American voters: about 60 percent of black Democratic voters are women, and black women may want to make history and elect a black woman.

But I would extend this idea beyond African-American voters: Booker has the potential to be well-liked among several Democratic constituencies without being the favorite of any. You could see, say, Millennials preferring Beto O’Rourke or Sanders; party loyalists siding with Biden or Harris; and The Left opting for Sanders or Warren.

“This field is very different from the one Obama competed in, which makes things much more difficult to predict,” said Griffis.

The Left, in particular, could be a problem for Booker. Liberal activists have deep concerns about the New Jersey Democrat, who took some more centrist stances in earlier stages of his career, such as strongly embracing charter schools and defending Bain Capital; they’ve also objected to the substantial amount of campaign donations he has accepted from people who work on Wall Street and in the financial services sector.3

More generally, Booker could have a message problem that spans constituencies. His message of optimism might sound dissonant to Democrats these days, even if they liked hearing something similar in 2007 and 2008. Democratic activists may not necessarily use the word “hate” to describe Trump, but my reporting over the last two years suggests a widespread and very, very intense … dislike of the president. Booker hasn’t changed; he’s always been the guy talking about everyone coming together and working across party lines — a self-described “prisoner of hope.” But what if politics has gotten so divisive, partisan and zero-sum that Democrats perceive someone like Booker not as unifying and optimistic but as naive and overly high-minded?

I can see Booker winning the nomination and becoming president, but I can also see him not winning a single primary. He has very broad potential appeal, but he may not have a solid core constituency, which is a major problem in a field that could include more than 20 candidates.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Barack Obama has degrees from Columbia and Harvard Law School, served in the state legislature in Illinois and then the U.S. Senate, and ran on “hope” in 2008.

  2. Booker won a 2013 special election that was held after then-Sen. Frank Lautenberg died.

  3. Booker should be particularly worried about influential voices who are part of the left but are also black, like The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, who has hinted that Booker, as mayor of Newark, was more interested in positioning himself for a run for higher office than serving the city.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments