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Booker and the heartland

A conversation with Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, about how New Jersey’s junior senator and other candidates navigated the Iowa State Fair

U.S. Sen. and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Cory Booker in Iowa.

U.S. Sen. and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Cory Booker in Iowa. – CORY FOR IOWA

Each year, the Iowa State Fair and its world-famous Butter Cow attract about a million visitors. Every four years, those visitors include a group of national politicians running for president. This year featured one of those quadrennial pilgrimages, with 20 men and women seeking the Democratic nomination making the rounds.

Among those making the rounds this year were two prominent New Jerseyans. Sen. Cory Booker, of course, is running for president and his attendance was pretty much mandatory. So he was there. The other Garden State denizen taking in the sights and sounds – specifically, the voices of likely participants in the 2020 Iowa presidential nominating caucuses – was Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Murray traveled to Des Moines, he said, to get a “reality check” on the polling Monmouth is conducting and will continue to conduct throughout the nominating process and the general election next year. With the primary campaign about to kick into high gear after Labor Day, NJBIZ spoke with Murray about what he saw and heard at the fair, which ran from Aug. 8-18.

Of particular interest to New Jersey voters is Murray’s assessment of Booker’s reception in Iowa, which he said was widely positive – among the best in the field. “If there were no polls and you just looked at the crowds and their reaction, you would think front-runners were Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar,” Murray said. But adoring crowds may not be enough. “He’s got September and October. But he’s got to move the needle in polls. If he doesn’t move the needle then I think the writing is on the wall for him,” Murray explained.

The following questions and answers were edited for clarity.

NJBIZ: Given that Booker makes personal connections but that ability is not coming through in the polls, can he last until the New Jersey primary?

Murray: He’s got to exceed expectations in Iowa. Then he’s got to win South Carolina.

Q. Can he make it to the Iowa caucuses?

A. At this point, yes. He’s not out of it yet. He’s raising money at a decent clip, but he’s spending all that money that he’s raising. He’s able to keep going because of the money that he has left from his Senate campaign that he’s been able to draw off.

But, if he doesn’t start moving in the polls now he’s going to run out of money. He can definitely get, I think, at this point to the end of the year. So he’s in the next two debates in September and October. … So that helps, keeps him in the mix as this field is narrowing down.

Q. My guess would be that those two debates are really critical because A, more people are going to be paying attention than in the middle of the summer and B, because there are going to be fewer candidates and he has the chance to show the kind of personal appeal that you’re talking about.

“He’s definitely shown himself well out there,” Patrick Murray says of Cory Booker in Iowa. - CORY FOR IOWA

“He’s definitely shown himself well out there,” Patrick Murray says of Cory Booker in Iowa. – CORY FOR IOWA

A. It’s not clear how much he’s going to show because there are still going to be 10 people on the stage. … It’s still going to be a big stage. And he’s not going to have the opportunity he had in July to stand next to Joe Biden. He’s going to be farther away than that. … Obviously, he’s going to have to show his stuff, but, as we know, in a 10-person debate, folks who are toward the end don’t have the same opportunity.

But, the enthusiasm for him is there on the ground, it’s just translating that into commitments. And as I said, if you’re on the ground in Iowa and you have no knowledge of the polling, you would think that Cory Booker was in the top tier.

Q. Does that make him a likely or viable vice-presidential choice?

A. Yes, I think it does. Part of it is who the nominee is. … He’s definitely shown himself well out there. But he’s not the only one. I mentioned Amy Klobuchar as another person who has the potential for doing better than she is right now in the polls, another potential vice-presidential candidate for somebody else.

Q. One of the things that he’s done is that he’s the only unifying figure in the New Jersey Democratic Party. Every elected official has lined up behind his presidential bid. If he’s not in the race for the New Jersey primary, is there a natural heir to those endorsements?

A. No, I think they’ll be all over the place. Although I would say that if he drops out, by the time he drops out, the expectation is that the field would be significantly smaller. So you would definitely have establishment Democrats going with whoever the establishment Democrat is in the lead at the time. So Biden should be able to pick up some of those.

My guess is that the way the trajectory is going right now that Elizabeth Warren is going to take the left. But you have Kamala Harris who is still hanging in there. If Biden continues to stumble, she could be the one who pulls even with him.

But there’s no natural heir. In fact, the Cory Booker candidacy made life a hell of a lot easier for every New Jersey politico, from Phil Murphy on down. Because they just could just say, “hey, we gotta get with our favorite son. Sorry.’ It made it much easier for them to wait until the field is narrower to have to make the ultimate choice. So they all lucked out.

Q. Endorsements aside, if Booker is not in the field, who would be the strongest candidate in New Jersey? Assuming New Jersey still has a role to play in picking the nominee.

A. If there is still a nomination contest by the time we get to New Jersey, it will be down to two people, most certainly. And so whoever the establishment candidate is will have the edge. … The establishment, particularly in Democratic politics just carries so much weight here.

So if it’s Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, for example, Biden has the edge. That doesn’t mean Warren’s not going to get 40, maybe 45 percent of the vote. But Biden will still have the edge.

Q. Given what’s going on in Newark with lead in the water, does that hurt Booker’s legacy? Or is that just a local story?

A. No, that had just started popping up out there. But you know what’s fascinating though as I saw that story popping up when I was out in Iowa, is that water quality is a big issue out there. For different reasons – not lead in pipes, but runoff from farms. But very similar things to what we’re hearing here – drinking water, can’t swim in the lakes. It’s kind of a universal issue.

But I don’t know how it’s going to play, because it’s just started out, and whether we’re going to see the same kind of reaction as we did with Flint.

U.S. Sen. and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Cory Booker in Iowa.

U.S. Sen. and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Cory Booker in Iowa. – CORY FOR IOWA

Q. Getting back to Iowa, one of the images that came through here was Booker trying to figure out how to eat. He’s not going to eat a corn dog or a pork chop on a stick, but he did find the fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick.

A. Yeah, I forgot that was there. I know that when they came in … they knew where the veg stand was, with those fried veggies. … All the candidates do something, whether it’s the pork chop or the cheese curds or whatever, their advance staff knows where they’re going.

I will say, this is almost a year ago, this is before Cory announced, I saw him and I said “I’m going to be there in Iowa, because I want to see how you handle the pork chop.” He said, “I’ll figure out a way to do that.” So he did by avoiding the pork chop tent entirely. … And the place he went to is literally the opposite direction of the pork chop tent. …

You have to do this, but at the same time it really doesn’t matter. … And in fact, he was smart. Because the photos of people eating corn dogs? They look ridiculous.

Q. Did anyone hurt themselves by what they did there?

A. No. Now, the thing is Joe Biden appeared on the first day. And one of the things I heard about Biden was that he wasn’t talking to Iowa voters. About half of the candidates got to Iowa unveiling their agricultural plan. You’re kind of pandering to the locals. Or they spoke to specific issues, whether it’s the opioid crisis or this or that. Joe Biden doesn’t do that. He gives his standard stump speech, which is, ‘we’ve got to fight back for the soul of the country. Donald Trump is undermining it. It’s all about the middle class, the backbone of the country.’ And that’s really it. He doesn’t speak in generalities, he doesn’t talk about hog futures or corn subsidies, which used to be the big one that you had to go in and prove your bona fides. So I was hearing from folks saying, “you know, he’s not really talking to us.”

In fact, when he got up on the soapbox, and this is really fascinating, he gives basically the first five minutes of his stump speech and then he stops. And he says, “Is that it?” Whoever it is from the fair says, “No you’ve got fifteen more minutes.” And he says, “I’ve got more time? Don’t tell me that. I can go on and on.”

Then he went on and on. And he should have just stopped there, because that’s all he’s going to do, that’s his appeal. And he’s winning over those strategic voters who are not enthusiastic about him but that’s the message that they need to hear: “I don’t want to hear fighting over who’s got the best Medicare For All Plan or free college tuition. I just want the guy who’s going to say he’s going to win back the heart and soul of America in order to beat Donald Trump.

So he should have just stopped and took questions. But he didn’t and rambled on. And that’s what I heard from folks, is that there’s no enthusiasm for him at all.

And then of course after that, were all the gaffes at all the events. And I don’t know what the reaction was to the gaffes because they all happened after his big appearance. So it will be interesting to see as we go forward with polling there whether these will be the ones that catch up with him. Because they seemed to come a mile a minute, but the problem was that there were so many things going on with other candidates that I don’t think it had time to seep in to Iowa as it was happening.

Q. Any other general observations? Anything that struck you that was different this time than last time?

A. Yes. The crowds at the state fair for the Democrats this year were bigger than they were for the Republicans four years ago. With the exception of Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had a big crowd last year and had a big crowd this year. He and Warren, I think, had the biggest crowds at the state fair. …

That’s why we expect a record turnout, even without the virtual caucus that they’re doing this year and allowing people to phone in. I think the record high turnout for a Democratic caucus in 2008 was, I think, 239,000, somewhere around there. They’re going to get more than that, in-person, alone.

And they are going to add however many virtual caucus-goers to that. So it’s going to be a huge record turnout. That was our expectation in the polling, because of the number of people who were screening through as likely voters. …

That was clear on the ground. That the level of enthusiasm for any candidate on the Democratic side was much more than we saw on the Republican side with all the candidates they had four years ago.

Q. Did you talk to any Trump voters?

A. Yes, I did. I did talk to Trump voters. … What one of those voters told me, there were a couple of Trump voters, who told me “We look at the polls and we laugh, because you’re going to get it wrong again. Because it’s worse than it was in 2016 about not talking about supporting Donald Trump.”

He said, “We almost didn’t vote in 2016 because we really didn’t like Donald Trump. But we’re definitely voting this time around. … More than in 2016, we don’t mention that we’re supporting Donald Trump.” …

I think that’s something we have to be really careful of in the polling again this year.

For more about Murray’s trip to Des Moines, check out his podcast at

Jeffrey Kanige

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