DES MOINES — Today, Cory Booker says, is an “incredible, incredible day.”
He is bounding toward the veggie burger tent at the Iowa Steak Fry on Saturday afternoon, a trail of supporters weaving through thick crowds behind him, trying to keep up. He is telling anyone who asks that he’s doing “great.” “Really great,” he says. He vaults over a stack of watercoolers into the back of the tent and gets into position behind the grill, slapping on blue latex gloves. He serves a Gardein patty to another candidate, his Senate colleague Michael Bennet, and grins. “HELLO, VEGANS!” Booker shouts to no one in particular, and everybody laughs.
You wouldn’t know it, but today is also the day that might bring his presidential campaign to an early, unexpected end. Around 9 a.m., a few hours before he arrived for his speech at the Iowa Steak Fry, a ritual of presidential politics in the state that kicks off the nominating process, Booker’s campaign made a stark announcement: He needed to bring in $1.7 million in 10 days, his campaign manager Addisu Demissie said, or else he would have to drop out.
Without it, Demissie wrote in a memo, “we do not see a legitimate long-term path forward.”
The decision to state this publicly — framed by Booker campaign officials as a show of “radical transparency,” an honest, vulnerable “call for help” when most campaigns just project strength all the time, even falsely — came both suddenly, as a shock, and slowly, as an inevitable fact.
Booker, the 50-year-old New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, talks with confidence about his team’s “slow and steady” approach to the Democratic primary. It’s “tortoise and the hare,” his aides say. It’s winning “brick by brick” — a reference to his adopted hometown, aka Brick City. There’s a sense, watching Booker’s campaign, that their strategy is also incumbent upon a moment — a fact that can create some dissonance between his public confidence and the reality that, almost eight months into his presidential bid, that moment has yet to arrive.
Even on Friday, the night before his campaign’s announcement, titled “Now or Never” in a post on Medium, Booker told reporters he had no doubts about his position in the state of Iowa.
“I plan on winning it,” he said at a forum in Cedar Rapids.
The New Jersey senator has struggled to translate his effervescent approach into a following with Democratic primary voters, despite nearly a decade as a national political figure — which, as aides see it, is part of the problem. How do you make Cory Booker, the flawed superhero-like figure of Newark who drew national headlines from a city of 280,000, a new story again?
Maybe you can't, but it's not for lack of trying. He's led the field in the policy debate on gun control and criminal justice. He's criticized former vice president Joe Biden's record on race and rhetoric — without veering into invective. He's built a large, well-regarded organization in Iowa. He is leading his rivals in endorsements from activists and elected officials in the state. But he remains far behind Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, without the financial reserves of a candidate like Pete Buttigieg.
Inside his campaign, according to interviews with Booker officials this weekend, it became clear over the last two weeks that they were going to bring in significantly less money than expected in September. They needed to raise their income projections, and they weren’t going to do it without saying something. “This is what we decided on,” one senior official said. “Tell the world the truth.” Some worried the news would come out of nowhere, invite premature campaign obituaries, or be seen as a fundraising trick — the real-life version of the panicked emails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, that have become one of the biggest jokes in politics. (See: subject lines such as “we’re BEGGING.”) As late as midnight on Friday, they were calling supporters to let them know the plan and that it wasn’t a “gimmick.”
Officials believe the $1.7 million figure would be enough to stay viable at a time when they race gets real — they could continue hiring organizers in states like Iowa, they could pay ballot access fees — but they also know they might fall short. Raising $1.7 million in 10 days would require raising more than the $1.4 million Booker raised in the 10 days after his campaign launch.
“I don't know exactly 100% what to make of it,” said Steve Phillips, a major Democratic donor in California who started a super PAC to support Booker’s campaign and does not coordinate with the team in Newark. “It's really far too soon to be overly dramatic. Beyond that, I don't know what else to make of it. They're saying it's not tactical. Who knows. I still feel like it's too early for that drama.”
Phillips, who runs an initiative that supports Democratic candidates of color, has been talking up a Booker presidential campaign for years. “As long as this race has been on the horizon for Cory — and they’re really gonna close up shop in October?”
As of Sunday morning, according to the campaign, Booker has raised more than $363,000, putting him about 21% to his Oct. 1 deadline. More than half of the contributions have come from new donors.
The money was already coming in, albeit perhaps too slowly, by the time Booker arrived at the Steak Fry. In Des Moines, he does not look like a man whose campaign might end in 10 days' time. He’s wearing a bracelet that says “We Rise” in red, white, and blue beads, made by one of his Des Moines organizers, and talking with voters about veganism. (“There's a protein myth in this country. There's protein in vegetables. There's protein in broccoli. People overreact! Legumes! Beans! Lots and lots of vegetables!”)
“I’m in a hyped mood,” he says, standing at the grill.
“It is a challenge day. And we've risen to challenges all over the history of this campaign since February.” This morning’s decision, he says, was the right one. “Radical transparency works. And people understanding what's at stake works. This is not a time to wait. The defining moment of this campaign is the fourth quarter. You can't drop an organizer into Iowa in January and think you're gonna win. We need to hire up right now and if we can't do that, we're not gonna stay with the four really resourced campaigns who are going to catch up to us.”
Those four campaigns would, of course, be Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg. And part of the Saturday announcement, as Booker supporters describe it, was meant to warn Democratic primary voters that if they don’t tune into the race now, they risk letting the field solidify around four white people — three of them in their seventies, three of them white men.
“This is not a fait accompli. This is a call for help,” Booker says.
“You want me in this race? You believe in this campaign? This is the time to step up.”
Inside his campaign, his staff took the news the same way. It was, somewhat incongruously, the best day of the race for the young aides on his staff since the launch. People felt a renewed sense of purpose, energized. In Iowa, the team here found out about the push to $1.7 million during a call on Friday. “Everyone knows what we have to do and is going to work.” They had a path forward, even if only for 10 days. There was almost, as some described it, a sense of relief.
The news, and the positive reaction inside Booker’s own campaign to the announcement, put voice to a question few others in the race have yet to acknowledge four months before voting begins: “If you don't have a real chance to win the nomination, then you should be honest with people and let them know,” Booker says.
“This is not an exercise in ego for me. This is not a vanity play. I think that if you don't have a pathway to victory you shouldn't be in this race. So we're not there yet. We're still one of the best, most competitive campaigns in this election.”
It’s not something you hear from other candidates in similar or worse positions, such as Bennet, Julián Castro, or Amy Klobuchar. Even some of the biggest names in this race — like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris — are now facing questions about their long-term viability.
“Sixteen other candidates are in the same boat as we are, and no one is talking about it,” as one adviser put it.
The constraints on a campaign, especially one with a substantial Iowa staff like Booker's, are real — and some of them imposed by the Democratic National Committee.
Faced with a sprawling field, the DNC put together an escalating set of criteria for sanctioned primary debates: a polling component and a quantitative donor threshold. This month, the DNC rules effectively winnowed the field to 10 candidates. (A few candidates who did not make the September debate, like Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio, have already dropped out.) While Booker met the polling dimension without too much trouble, securing more than 130,000 donors proved somewhat challenging this summer for some campaigns, particularly Booker's.
The DNC has not yet announced the qualification rules for the November debate.
In Iowa, Booker says the state of the campaign “is extraordinarily strong,” he adds. “But in order to compete in the fourth quarter, we have to change the trajectory of our fundraising. It's the honest truth.”
“We're in this to win it, not just...to be around.”
After his speech, as he talks with reporters, Elizabeth Warren takes the stage to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” A wave of mint green “WARREN” signs pop up across the crowd. In a few hours, the Des Moines Register will release a new poll by Ann Selzer, considered the gold standard of Iowa caucus polling, showing Warren in the lead, placing above Joe Biden for the first time, with 22%.
Booker, the poll shows, is still at 3%. ●