Sen. Cory A. Booker rolled out a new strategy in Iowa on Monday to finally get his presidential bid noticed, launching a six-figure TV ad buy and front-loading his resources in the state that holds the nation’s first nominating contest.
But the New Jersey Democrat is racing the clock to qualify for the next debate Jan. 14 and break though with voters before Iowa’s caucuses Feb. 3.
The 60-second ad, which started airing in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids areas, overlays images of Mr. Booker with his positive rhetoric about the unquenchable “spirit” of the American people.
“The call of this election is the call to unite in common cause and common purpose because we know that our fates are united, that we have a common destiny,” Mr. Booker says. “And as your president, that’s how I will move us forward together.”
Mr. Booker’s campaign team previewed the ad blitz in a recent memo outlining its push to get Mr. Booker onto the presidential debate stage in Des Moines and to put up a good showing in the Feb. 3 caucuses.
“We are front-loading our planned January buy early in the month to help us run at both of our core goals — to reach Iowans while the final debate-qualifying polls are in the field and in the persuasion window before the caucus,” campaign manager Addisu Demissie said in the memo to supporters.
Mr. Demissie said a strong performance in Iowa is essential to Mr. Booker’s path to victory and that his TV presence will expand if the campaign can exceed its fundraising targets.
But the rosy tone of Mr. Booker, who is running on a message of “radical love,” is arguably out of place during an election season when Democratic voters are steeling for a fight against President Trump and are prizing electability as a defining feature for their candidate of choice.
Candidates such as Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have essentially cornered the market on the far left, while more moderate contenders such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have sounded “concrete and reasonable,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.
“And Cory Booker is sort of soaring rhetoric, inspirational. I’m not sure that’s a match for the time. I think that’s his problem,” he said.
Mr. Ferson complimented Mr. Booker’s ground game in New Hampshire, which holds its first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 11, but said the senator’s in-person connections aren’t necessarily translating to broad support.
“People think he’s ‘the best’ who have seen several candidates in person. I think there, he works very well,” he said. “But it’s hard to do in a game where it’s largely going to be on TV and you’re not going to be able to [beat] everybody.”
Given his campaign’s comparatively limited financial resources, Mr. Booker also might not be able to get that far. It’s often said there are three tickets out of Iowa, and he is running sixth in the state in the latest RealClearPolitics average.
He failed to qualify for the December presidential debate and is short of the Democratic National Committee’s polling requirements for next month’s debate — the final faceoff before the caucuses.
The polling deadline for the seventh DNC debate is Jan. 10.
Mr. Demissie did say Mr. Booker has secured the 225,000 contributions from unique donors needed to qualify and that the January debate will be a “key opportunity” for him to get his message out.
“With the debate thresholds announced so late, we need to do everything we can now to make sure Cory is on that stage,” he said.
After Sen. Kamala D. Harris’ departure from the race this month, Mr. Booker has leaned into his status as one of the lone remaining black candidates with former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who started his campaign last month.
“I think that I’m the best person in this field clearly to reignite that Obama coalition,” Mr. Booker told the IndyMatters podcast this month. “I’m excited about our pathway to the presidency and even more excited that our pathway seems, this underdog pathway, seems to be the way we’ve elected those presidents who have been movement leaders.”
In the memo, Mr. Demissie said they expect Mr. Booker’s strength to run through urban and suburban parts of Iowa and that they are targeting paid communications toward college-educated women, women of color and older women — key demographics in the coalition that Barack Obama rode to victory in 2008 and 2012.
Candidates such as Mr. Booker have been waiting for more stumbling from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who has maintained a lead in national polling despite a string of campaign trail gaffes and persistent questions over his son Hunter’s business ties to Ukraine.
But even as he has slipped in Iowa and elsewhere, Mr. Biden has retained a consistent lead in his “firewall” state of South Carolina, where black voters make up about 60% of the Democratic primary electorate.
He boasted Monday that he has “overwhelming” support from the black community.
“More than everybody else combined running for office,” Mr. Biden said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “They know my heart. They know what I’ve done.”
Mr. Booker has pointed to Mr. Obama’s reshuffling the support of black voters with his win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, after Hillary Clinton appeared to have a stranglehold on the critical voting bloc, as evidence that the outcome of the 2020 race isn’t set in stone.
Though Mr. Obama lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary, he trounced Mrs. Clinton in South Carolina to re-gather momentum en route to his eventual nomination.
But Mr. Booker isn’t necessarily the best-positioned candidate to take advantage of a significant stumble by Mr. Biden in the coming weeks.
Mr. Biden was the top choice of 27% of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina and was followed by Mr. Sanders at 20% and Ms. Warren at 19%, according to a Post and Courier-Change Research poll released this month.
That was the first time since February that Mr. Biden hadn’t held a double-digit lead in Post and Courier/Change Research polling.
But Mr. Booker could muster only a tie for fifth place with billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, at 5%. Mr. Buttigieg was in fourth place at 9% support.
“South Carolina’s much more indicative of the national voting electorate than, say, New Hampshire or Iowa. And with that African-American community [Biden’s] doing quite well,” said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina-based Republican Party strategist. “I think it’s going to ebb and flow a little bit, but I think it’s pretty strong.”