Cutting down interstate 93 in a Winnebago Sightseer, Cory Booker rattles off a list of authors on his Audible queue—Michael Lewis, Jon Meacham, Cornel West. “I don’t read fiction,” Booker interjects on his Granite State RV tour.
The candidate absorbs a mix of scripture and biography – reminders, he contends, that the “fairer eye of history” will “look askance in a negative way at what has been done.” Poised in a beige recliner inexplicably glued to the trailer floor, Booker leans in. “Everything from trying to do a Muslim ban to throwing children in cages to separating families, is a kind of constant moral vandalism.”
“The people we make monuments to,” Booker contends, “sometimes we can distort them.” The bus stops at a red light as the analogy lurches to present day. “I think the leaders who are seen as the greatest in this country are the leaders who are united. The leaders that elevated Americans, not denigrated them. So I just don’t see this president faring well in the rearview of our generations.”
Booker flits from foreign policy (we should not move back the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem) to natural gas (we need to electrify transportation but can’t just flip a switch) to D.C. statehood (he’s all for it). Noticeably absent from the senator’s policy deliberations are the words “Donald Trump,” a proper noun that does not surface over the course of a 32 minute conversation spanning 25 miles.
Also noticeably absent from his campaign has been a breakout moment. The 50-year-old former Rhodes Scholar is among the score of presidential contenders polling in low-single digits both nationally and in New Hampshire. Earning 72,000 new donors in the second quarter, Booker raised $4.5 million, a dip in performance from last quarter’s $5.1 million.
At a rally in Nashua, campaign staff announces a Fox News South Carolina poll qualifies the New Jersey senator for the September debate stage, but solicits donations to meet the 130,000 unique donor threshold he has still not met. An Economist/YouGov poll released last week found 35% of voters do not have an opinion of Mr. Booker, a plurality that outstrips his favorability rating among respondents. The survey has him mired at 1% support overall.
As the Winnebago hooks right, Booker braces himself on the door. There are more seatbelts in his stump speech than this RV.
“The auto manufacturers fought seat belts,” Booker exclaims at a house party in Exeter, responding to a question about carbon tax. “They fought seat belts. There’s so many things that corporations tell us they can’t do until they have to.”
Booker’s stump typically targets the president just once and at the top. “I’m going to vent to you guys a little,” Booker says aloud to about 250 voters congregated on picnic blankets. “The number one polling issue right now is, ‘I want to beat Donald Trump.’ And I’m going to tell you now, I think we should have bigger aspirations than that.”
Over the course of a 45 minute refrain, the Senator recites dozens of historical references in a journey that travels backwards over time from the Birmingham Church Bombing to Genesis 37:19 (“Here comes that dreamer!”). Talk of Bull Connor, McCarthyism and Father Coughlin turns to digressions on Bloody Sunday, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and John Lewis. The historical allusions continue: Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, the Birmingham Church Bombing, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, D-Day and the Lorraine Motel.
“So I just want you to know,” Booker says back on the bus, “I may be a former All-American football player and a big jock. But I’m also a big nerd,” the senator laughs. “All my life I’ve been I feel history really informs the present situation. And when you hear the rhetoric of this president, is the same rhetoric of that was used by the Know-Nothing Party.” Booker pauses. “We overcame this in the past, and we can overcome it again.”
Asked if his campaign road trip, complete with gaggles of journalists hopping on and off between retail stops, conjures images of the late Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” Booker’s smile fades.
“I reflect on John McCain all the time,” he says. “Not about campaigning. Just missing him.” He pauses. “He was someone who stood up against torture, was willing to take on campaign finance. He was very good to me in helping me learn the Senate. He was very much a mentor to me.”
In the driver’s seat, senior advisor Jim Demers double checks directions. The veteran Granite State political operative and former New Hampshire campaign co-chairman for Barack Obama quips he was “with the Booker campaign before Cory was,” pledging his support before the candidate’s Newark announcement.
Despite his low polling, Booker’s team here is large and experienced. Party leaders told prospective presidential candidates to not visit New Hampshire ahead of the 2018 midterms, an instruction Booker ignored, instead crisscrossing the state to raise money for local candidates.
The visits translated to goodwill among state officials when he announced months later. And Booker now commands nearly 30 New Hampshire organizers, three field offices, ten interns and nine endorsements – including coveted backings from Sens. Jon Morgan and David Watters, the only two members of the state Senate to endorse anyone so far.
Demers recalls his first time he caught a glimpse of Cory Booker, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton here in 2016. “I saw several things I thought really fit with New Hampshire politics. He really enjoys campaigning, and he really thrives on that personal interaction.”
Reflecting on ground game, Demers adds, “On election day, it’s all about get out the vote. And we’ll have one of the best campaigns going in this state so we can do exactly what Obama did in the 2008 the campaign.”
Obama, it should be noted, lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary.
A community garden greets visitors to his campaign headquarters in Manchester. A red door opens to the “selfie wall,” adorned with post-it notes reading “justice for all” and “lead with love.”
The word “love” appears beyond office walls. It’s a term employed in the senator’s stump speech, his everyday conversation, and scattered throughout his 2016 memoir – 126 times to be exact.
Asked if love wins in 2020, Booker’s New Hampshire state director Erin Turmelle smiles. “This is a question that I feel like is getting asked a lot,” the former New Hampshire Democratic official notes. “While some people might call that love, I call it unity. And we’re seeing it resonate with voters across the state.”
Amid the selfie line at Booker’s house party in Rockingham County over the weekend, words like “heart” and “kind” reverberate among Granite Staters debating their presidential shortlists. “The next person has to send a positive message, but also show that he’s strong enough to fight President Trump,” physician Al Vogel states. “Can he refute the viciousness and the nastiness and the lies?”
“This is not a ‘Kumbaya’ thing,” former marketing director Jan Phelps, a Booker supporter, says. “He’s not going to be lighting incense in the White House and calling girl scouts together. But he’s lending the brains and ability to inspire.”
Back in the van, Booker wraps up the conversation. “I’m just going to be my authentic self with this election,” he shrugs. “I don’t care if the polls tell you this or that.”
While canvassing Manchester’s ward 8 for local Mayor Joyce Craig, Booker saunters through streets, pausing once to record a video for Instagram and twice to apologize to neighbors for the gaggle of reporters crossing his wake. “Look at the grass, they’re stepping all over it,” Booker quips. “That’s why Trump calls them the enemy of the people.”
Ryan Patriquin emerges from his garage to accept a handshake and offer up the story of his last presidential candidate encounter. “Chris Christie,” the 28-year old grad student recounts to the senator.
Booker chuckles, lifting his iPhone out of his pocket to reveal a text message sent from his “great friend,” the former Governor of New Jersey, earlier that morning. “That’s an essay,” Patriquin says, eyebrows raised. “That’s not even a text. That warrants a call back.” Stashing the cell, Booker vows to do so later.
The New Jersey lawmaker points a finger towards Patriquin’s tattoo. “What’s it say?”
Patriquin rotates his forearm. “To thine own self be true,” he recites. “It’s a quote from the play Hamlet.”
Booker nods. “Yeah, I love that play.” He pauses. “And I love that quote.”