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Cory Booker Is A Stirring Speaker, Iowa Voters Say. But His Support Still Lags

Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks at the Teamsters Vote 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum Dec. 7 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks at the Teamsters Vote 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum Dec. 7 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Cory Booker is a politician who sounds like a preacher.

"We may be down in a valley right now," he said during an Iowa campaign stop this week, "but I promise you, if you stand with me, if you caucus with me, if we stand for that spirit, I promise you, we will get to the mountaintop and we'll do it, because together as Americans, we know we will rise."

Voters who listen to Booker often praise his charisma and authenticity. But the New Jersey senator has struggled to gain traction in state and national Democratic presidential primary polls, and he almost certainly won't be on the party's debate stage in Iowa next week.

That disconnect between many voters' reactions to Booker at his events and his overall support often surprises onlookers.

Sue Dvorsky, a former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, is unaligned with any candidate but has heard Booker speak several times. "I still get a little teary," she said. "I still get goosebumps on my arms."

But Dvorsky, who was an early supporter of candidate Barack Obama in 2007, says there's a different calculus this year. A lot of voters don't want to pick a candidate with their heart; they're picking with their head, trying to find the Democrat they think has the best odds of defeating President Trump.

Still, Dvorsky said: "It is undeniable that people like him."

And so Booker's fans are confused: Why isn't that goodwill translating into concrete support?

Some say maybe it's because he's black and many Democrats want to go with a safe, white male option this election. Others say maybe Booker's message of love and unity isn't what voters want this year; they want a fighter.

Regardless, when Booker speaks he captures the attention of a crowd better than most of his rivals.

"He has a really charismatic personality," Thomas Lecaque, who was sporting a Julián Castro campaign button on his jacket, said at a Booker house party. The former housing secretary, who last week dropped out of the race, had been Lecaque's first choice. But after hearing Booker in person, he was impressed.

"I trust him as a human being," Lecaque said. "He is someone who strikes me as being honest and idealistic in trying to do the right thing."

Booker has a massive extended family in Iowa, and the other day one of his cousins hosted a black women's luncheon for him in Des Moines.

One attendee, Lauren Patrick, said she wants Booker's voice in the race.

"I probably would [caucus for him]," she said. "Whether that's like a loyalty within the black community or just feeling like he's a solid candidate and he should have an opportunity to be on the platform, and then how people decide to vote from there is another thing. But I just want to make sure he has a fair shot."

Booker himself is pleading with Iowans in these final few weeks of campaigning ahead of the caucuses, asking them to ignore news headlines and polls.

"I am asking you to make a decision when you leave here to caucus for me," he told those gathered for a recent event. "I love Iowa 'cause you don't care about national polls, you really don't. You belie them all the time."

Jason Oelmann was in the crowd, eagerly listening. And after he went up to take a picture with the senator. Booker recorded a video message for Oelmann's partner, who didn't make this event.

"We're sending you lots of love and lots of gratitude," Booker said in the video. "I hope I get to meet you. Come to one of my future events. Please."

This is the Booker way: messages of love sent via modern technology.

Oelmann walked away thrilled.

"He's very charismatic and he's very, very positive," Oelmann said of Booker. "I feel like positive energy really radiates, it speaks to me."

But still, Oelmann's not sure he's going to caucus for Booker.

Booker's in his top three. But that's the predicament for the New Jersey senator. He's in a lot of people's top three. He's just not necessarily their No. 1.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.