Democrats Aren’t Buying Cory Booker’s ‘Unity’ Message

Cory Booker's message of unity isn't going over well with Democratic voters eager for a fight.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who entered the Presidential race back in February, has been using his time on the stump trying to be the anti-Trump, pushing a message of unity in an era when Donald Trump is sowing division. distrust and hatred. So far, it doesn’t seem to be playing well with his fellow Democrats:

SIOUX CITY, IOWA — Sen. Cory Booker launched a bid for the White House in February on a message of love and unity, painting himself as an inspirational leader who would help a polarized America find common ground.

Just 10 weeks later, Booker is discovering that so far love just isn’t enough.

Polling in the single digits and lagging top-tier competitors in fundraising, Booker this week sought to reboot his campaign, launching a “Justice For All” two-week, national tour heavy on economic policy proposals and social justice messaging. In Iowa, he rolled out an expansive proposal for a new income tax credit and talked about the need for rural infrastructure investment. In Georgia, he unveiled a voting rights plan, vowing to make Election Day a national holiday and talked about restoring voting rights to ex-felons.

The recent steps aim to invigorate a presidential bid that has underwhelmed some Democrats who are questioning whether Booker’s message is one that resonates in the Trump era.

Booker kicked off his presidential bid on Feb. 1 framing his run on the proposition that the nation’s next leader needed to tap into ways to reunite an ever-divided country. Booker, who often references Martin Luther King Jr., is shaping his candidacy as one that seeks to bring back civic grace and discourse, saying that political tribalism in America runs so deep “we can’t even do the things that we agree on.”

“Right now what this country needs is not people having a race to the gutter, not a party that’s going to show the worst of who they are, not when they go low we go lower, not fighting fire with fire,” he said at a recent Iowa campaign stop.

It’s a tricky platform to execute, said Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats. While he said Booker’s messaging is “compelling,” it comes at a political moment when the party is hungry for candidates to offer up evidence that they can defeat President Donald Trump.

“The Democratic base is angry as hell and we’re fighting for our lives,” Bagniewski said. “That’s how it feels every day. The primary voters are angry and they want to fight.”

At an Iowa town hall this week, one potential caucus-goer commented on Booker’s approach, telling him that “while we love your love message,” tackling issues like climate change “has to be our first priority.”
Even the senator acknowledged he’s been second-guessed on his messaging.

“‘That’s not a strategy to win, Cory. You’re fighting against Donald Trump. How you gonna to win?'” Booker said people will ask him. “And I say, ‘please, I’m the guy who beat this machine in Newark, New Jersey.'”
Booker told that Iowa crowd he believes the election has to be about something more than just ousting Trump from the White House.

“We have a choice in this election. To make it about one guy and one election and just get rid of him? I understand that call, but it’s got to be about something bigger than that,” Booker said. “We Democrats in this room, it can’t just be about beating Republicans, no. This is a moral moment in our country where it’s got to be about uniting Americans.”

A March Focus on Rural America poll in Iowa backs up Booker’s premise: 50 percent of those surveyed said it was “absolutely critical” that a 2020 candidate is “someone who can heal the racial, ethnic and partisan divide in our country.”

The extent to which Booker’s opening message has fallen flat can be seen in both the polling and the fundraising numbers that have been released to date. The most recent poll of Iowa Democrats by The Des Moines Register, for example, puts Booker at just three percent, which is better than many candidates in the field but significantly trails better-known candidates such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke. The same poll Booker at just three percent as a potential second choice for Iowa Democrats, which is an important fact due to the manner in which the Democratic Caucuses are run. Nationally, the polls show Booker averaging 3.5% according to RealClearPolitics, which is better than candidates such as Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper. and Kirsten Gillibrand who are in the 1-2% range, but far behind poll leaders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as well as the middle of the pack which includes O’Rourke, Warren, Harris, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Finally, the most recent fundraising numbers show Booker raised $7.9 million in the first quarter and has roughly $6 million in the bank, placing him near the bottom of the list among the current field.

It’s not surprising that Booker’s message of unity is falling flat in the era of Trump. For one thing, as I noted last week, Democratic voters really, really want to get behind a candidate that they believe is capable of taking on Trump in 2020. For many of these voters, this appears to mean a candidate who is capable of taking the President on in his own territory, which is anything but a message of “love” and unity. They are, in other words, looking for a fighter, not a lover, and so far at least Booker isn’t offering that message. For better or worse, Donald Trump has at least for now changed the political landscape to the extent that he has engaged in rhetoric that would have previously been considered unacceptable and has managed to make it acceptable. Any Democrat that wants to take him on and win is going to need to match that rhetoric blow for blow while at the same time offering voters a different vision on policy from Trump and the Republicans. So far at least.. Booker isn’t doing that.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al Ameda says:

    I have to tell you Doug, after watching and listening to Booker’s embarrassing performance on the national stage – during the Kavanaugh Confirmation Heatings – Booker has a long way to go before he sells me on his candidacy.

    Although, I admit after Trump, ’embarrassing performance’ may not matter much.
    The bar is set low.

  2. SenyorDave says:

    I don’t see that there is a lot of common ground with most Trump supporters. If they don’t have a problem with Trump’s behavior as outlined in the Mueller report they are either delusional or treasonous. I know I won’t be apologizing anytime soon as per KAC’s request.
    As far as Booker, I heard him doing an Iowa townhall recently and he struck me as pretty lightweight. He seemed to have a very surface understanding of most of the issues he was questioned about, just enough to be able to answer in a very general way.

  3. @al Ameda:

    The whole “I am Sparatacus” moment thing, as people came to call it, didn’t go over well.

  4. Teve says:

    We’re 289 days from the first Democratic primary, and like five hundred and seventy something days from the presidential election.

    Not every 285-lb 72 yro who eats junk food is going to make it to next fall, just saying.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s not time for kumbaya. We’ve kumbayad these white supremacist, fantasy-dwelling greed pigs far too often. We have no ‘partner for peace’ in the GOP, they’re fighting a war, and the only thing to do is for us to fight the war and win it.

  6. Tyrell says:

    This seems to sum up the condition of our negative, corrosive political culture today. That’s not the Democratic party I once knew – the party of Johnson, Humphrey, Carter, Connally, Nunn, and the amazing William Fulbright. These leaders sought to bridge the divides, create coalitions, roll up their sleeves and get things done. Johnson was tough, but one of the most skilled politician of the twentieth century. He knew how to charm and how to convince people into working with him. He achieved a remarkable amount of legislation. Hubert Humphrey was a tower of optimism. Everyone liked and respected him.
    I will not vote for someone just to be voting against someone else.
    Beto Rourke seems to be a nice enough person that can get people working together, but he seems to be fading. Biden still looks like the best choice for the Democrats: experienced, sensible, respected, and not way out in left field.
    It would be good to have a military veteran.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Just a thought, but an oft repeated truism is that generals plan for the last war. Perhaps all the Dem candidates (and vocal voters) who are trying to out tough Tiny are employing a strategy that is so 2016 and Cory is on to something.

  8. Gustopher says:

    I like Booker. I like that he has some executive experience (he was a Mayor before Senator, in case anyone doesn’t know), and I like that he runs into burning buildings. I could happily support him.

    He is falling flat.

    With Warren coming out for impeachment, I think it is safe to say that every candidate is going to be asked about it, and that may change the race. If he sticks with his unity message, he may be the only non-impeachment candidate, and that might be a winning issue (I don’t think it is, but in a crowded field…). Or he may be unable to keep his unity message intact.

    I suspect that he will be a Senator for a long time.

  9. SenyorDave says:

    @Tyrell: It is interesting that you don’t even mention the Republican party in your comment. Decades of a scorched earth policy, leaders like Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, and now Donald Trump. IMO, you have a serious flaw in your argument:
    1. Do you seriously believe that the current Republican party has any interest in reaching across the aisle? If so, when have they demonstrated that in recent times?

    The modern Republican party has fully embraced a corrupt, racist amoral pig as their leader. In their bizarro world the Mueller report somehow exonerates Trump.

  10. Matt says:

    @Teve: Well his sleep habits are terrible and he has a sedentary lifestyle. I’m sure he’s under a crapton of stress too.

    @Tyrell: Oh look Tyrell popping up to remind us how it’s really the Democratic party that is to blame for everything always…

  11. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: I wish him a long life. 72 is pretty long, right?

    No, seriously. I want him to stroke out, on the toilet, land face first against a hot radiator and spend the next twenty years incontinent, and in one of those Star Trek Captain Pike wheelchair things only able to communicate with a beep.

    Not quite feeling Booker’s “were all one” stuff right now.

  12. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Tyrell: Shorter Tyrell: “It’s not like it was in the old days.”
    [Rejoinder from the abyss]: “…and it wasn’t like that then either.”

  13. An Interested Party says:

    These days, “unity” looks like weakness…there’s a reason Booker’s numbers are so impotent…

  14. Tyrell says:

    @SenyorDave: I chose to talk about the Democrat party because the subject here was Senator Booker ; not because I have a beef with Democrats . I have little interest in the Republican party as I am a lifelong member of the Southern wing of the Democratic party. I was brought up hearing a lot about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I liked Kennedy and I still think Lyndon Johnson was a great president.
    I was okay with some Republicans: Dirksen, Goldwater, Fred Thompson, Helms, and Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon did some good things, but messed up. Reagan was okay, but came along later and was overrated. The only time that I voted for a Republican was for Nixon in 1972: the ill fated Senator McGovern campaign.
    I go back to a time when I can remember people around here still had resentment about Republicans: General Sherman’s destruction and the so-called “Reconstruction” fiasco.
    The Republican party was virtually non-existent around here when I was a child. Some counties did not even have a Republican registration book! Even now the Democrats still dominate local and most state offices. It is the presidential candidates that have been the issue. I will certainly support a Democrat candidate for president, if and when they nominate one who is centrist. And preferably a southerner.