It Was Never Going to Be Cory Booker’s Year
Booker’s message of love was not able to break through the post-2016 cynicism
Americans are just so goddamn tired. The world is literally burning, trust in political institutions has nosedived, income inequality is at its highest, the country is split by partisanship at a level that feels toxic to democracy, and the laundry list of Bad Stuff goes on and on. Which is all to say, Cory Booker never stood a chance — not in this political moment.
The U.S. senator from New Jersey, who preached love and unity on the campaign trail, dropped out of the 2020 presidential race on Monday. Booker cited a lack of fundraising and having to stay in Washington for the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump as the main reasons he was ending his campaign for the Democratic nomination.
“I’m proud of the ideas we brought to this Democratic primary and, more importantly, the values we championed throughout — that the only way we make progress is by bringing people together — even when we were told that our approach couldn’t win,” he said in an email to supporters announcing the end of his campaign. “Because our values must always be our values, even when that’s not convenient.”
Booker launched his campaign on February 1, the first day of Black History Month, calling for unity and to “channel our common pain back into our common purpose.” He soldiered on with this approach, emphasizing love as often as he talked about policy, and to the point where he refused to play dirty and attack his opponents.
In theory, this playbook should have delivered Booker an Obama-type coalition, particularly because many of his plans neatly lined up with what today’s Democratic progressives want, such as aggressive gun safety measures and addressing the climate crisis. And Booker made marginalized communities a centerpiece of his campaign. He proposed clemency for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, so-called baby bonds to close the racial wealth gap, and fully decriminalizing sex work.
But even though he drew enthusiastic crowds and an impressive roster of endorsements, his campaign never truly took off. Booker was never able to break into the top tier of candidates; he failed to make the debate stage several times after struggling with fundraising and poll numbers. Part of it was that other candidates occupied all his possible paths to the White House, from Joe Biden’s strength with black voters to Buttigieg’s moderate Rhodes scholar appeal. Part of it was his decision to eschew his long-standing base of corporate donors. And part of it, surely, was that his message of love and unity proved a poor fit for the post-2016 world.
Maybe in another moment, love could have won and Booker would be on his merry way to changing the nation for good. But Americans on every side of every aisle are currently filled with fury — at the establishment, at each other, at the broken systems, at the overall state of the country. And asking people to come together in Trump’s America — when the main reason he became president was a long-simmering racist backlash — can feel naive to voters, if not out of touch entirely.
When other candidates are tapping into that anger — for better or worse — in a way that makes voters feel seen, it was never going to be Booker’s time. His approach could have been ideal for a candidate in normal times. But as we’ve known for years now: These are not normal times.