In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Let’s talk about Cory Booker. Someone needs to. His campaign is lonely. There’s the front-runner, Joe Biden. And the Big Three, which brings Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in. Also the Top Five, including Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, both of whom were previously closer to the leaders than they are now.

Booker is not included in those gatherings. We also have the candidates that just aren’t going to make it. I left him out there too. Where does he fit? What would it take for him to level up? Is it even worth discussing him? Here are some arguments:

Ignore Him: His fundraising is weak

He grabbed $4.5 million in the second quarter. He’s a bit over $12 million overall. It’s not nothing, but well less than Harris ($25 million total.) Buttigieg, Biden, and Sanders cleared $20 million just in the second quarter. Warren got close and has tons of fundraising momentum.

His burn rate is higher than the Top Five. 60% of his money came from donors giving at least $200. We’ve learned from the past few cycles that candidates who pull more from smaller donors have more upside. Partly because they won’t max out. Partly because it indicates a broader base.

The voting calendar gets busy quickly. Super Tuesday, including expensive places like California, is March 3. That’s only a month after Iowa caucuses. And California begins early voting the same day Iowa kicks off the process.

How is an underfunded candidate going to scale quickly enough?

Pay Attention: He has a real ground operation in Iowa

On the other hand, Booker invested early in Iowa. An Iowa ground operation takes time and energy. It’s not necessarily incredibly expensive. Nobody has a stronger team than Warren. She’s got both money and organization.

But Biden isn’t known for running technically flawless campaigns. There’s very little overlap between supporters of Sanders and Booker’s target audience. Mayor Pete got a late start on the ground. Harris has a team in place that will leverage opportunities. But what if her one debate moment with Biden is as good as it gets for her?

Warren is going to do pretty well in Iowa. Maybe very very well. Bernie’s gonna do Bernie things. There’s room for Booker to scrape together a decent result. Remember, there’s a 15% requirement to get delegates from a given caucus location. If Harris and Buttigieg are running short, is it that big a leap to think Team Booker could get the non-Big Three part of the room to support him?

Ignore Him: He’s not near double digits with any demographic group

It really helps to have something to build on. Biden has enough demographic strengths that you can build a stack that makes a particular voter almost guaranteed to support him. A moderate, rural, African American woman, over the age of 65 checks five boxes.

You can play the same game with Sanders or Warren. They each still have work to do, and noticeable holes in their coalitions, but there’s a base. Harris and Buttigieg have at least mixed some concrete, even if it’s not poured yet.

Booker’s got nothing. He does a little better with black voters, but he’s still in lower single digits. He’s a little better among more educated, upper income voters, but Warren is their first choice, followed by Harris and Buttigieg.

He’s not poison to any age group, like Sanders is to older voters, but again, no key concentration. His best group is age 45-64, which fits someone who isn’t making an impact at the extremes. It’s hard to target your marketing when you’re not sure who your customer base is.

Pay Attention: He’s a good debater and qualified for September/October

Many voters haven’t locked in their decisions yet. More than half think they could change their preference by the time they vote. Booker did well in both debates. Not game changing (obviously), but well. There’s only one night of debates this month. If someone is watching at all, they’ll see him.

October will likely bring two nights, but with much smaller candidate groupings. On stage with a couple of contenders and a total of 6 people, Booker could really shine. If a voter is worried about Harris’s authenticity and Buttigieg’s ability to connect with black voters, and wants a candidate born after 1950, he could get a solid look.

Ignore Him: His polling numbers are half of where they were last December

On the other hand, it’s not like Booker is a total stranger to the type of voters who actually show up for a primary or caucus. He’s been part of the next wave of Democrats for years now. And before the field got so crowded, he was polling a bit better, averaging 5.4% near the end of 2018.

Since then, Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Buttigieg have each surged past, while Booker drifted. Of the three, only Beto didn’t stay ahead of him. If Booker is that good a candidate or has that much potential, why are these others drawing more attention and money?

Pay Attention: There’s room for a fourth contender, and nobody has that spot locked down yet

Biden seems very resilient. Bernie has his base. Warren has impressed and looks to have a high ceiling. But none have the contest on lockdown. If you add together the support for Harris, Buttigieg, and Booker, it gets you to around 15%. Throw in a bit from the others who qualified for the next debates, but won’t get nominated, and you’re closer to 18-20%.

That gets you a four way race with any possible outcome. In a world where none of the Big Three go away, but a significant portion of the electorate wants to consider something else, Booker might have an easier time consolidating those votes than his competitors.

Warren is doing very well with women voters and any voter who likes the idea of a female nominee. Another portion of the electorate is scared about a repeat of 2016. Booker might be safer in their eyes. He has less work to do with black voters than Buttigieg. He’s more substantial than Beto.

It’s not like the electorate has given Booker a really detailed look and then dismissed him. It’s more that they haven’t deigned to look very closely yet. They like having him there just in case.

So where does this leave us?

Booker isn’t a front-runner. He’s not a solid contender. He doesn’t have good odds. He’s not the perfect alternative.

Having raised money from New Jersey and the Tri-State area for years, he has ties to Wall Street and the Pharma industry. That won’t help him win dedicated Warren or Sanders voters, but they’re likely off-limits anyway. And he has enough contacts and credibility that hitting the funding gas pedal in February wouldn’t be impossible.

During the State of the Union address, a cabinet member is traditionally held out of the House chamber, to ensure continuity of government in case the worst happens.

Booker isn’t quite that much of a reach, but he’s definitely the fire extinguisher or defibrillator hanging on the wall behind glass. Voters aren’t thinking they’ll need him now, but just in case, he’s there and ready to come to the rescue. This status puts him ahead of all but five other candidates.

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