With his announcement last Friday, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker became the fourth New Jerseyan to run for president this century. Partly due to changing times, but also due to his uncommon style and message, Booker’s announcement was very different from those of the men who preceded him.
“I grew up knowing that the only way we can make change is when people come together,” the Democrat said when announcing his candidacy via a tweet that linked to a video which includes baby pictures, graffitied buildings and a Newark high school marching band. “In America, courage is contagious,” he said.
Most candidates, including the three New Jerseyans who have preceded Booker on the ballot since 2000 — former Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and publisher Malcolm “Steve” Forbes Jr. — announce their plans in person in front of a crowd or, more recently, on television talk news shows.
The 49-year-old broke all conventions when he tweeted his candidacy to some 4.2 million followers. The tweet linked to the 2-minute 26-second video that is part biography, part inspiration and had 3.7 million views as of Saturday night. Booker followed up the 7:14 a.m. tweet with an appearance later Friday on the talk show The View. While many state legislative candidates won’t even list a home address on their filing papers, Booker finished the day with a nearly 30-minute press conference in front of his three-story house in Newark’s Central Ward.
Compare that to New Jersey’s other recent presidential candidates.
Christie, a Republican, announced his 2016 candidacy surrounded by his family, on June 20, 2105 on a platform in the gym of Livingston High School, from which he graduated in 1980. Bradley was more than two years out of the Senate in September 1999 and still living in Denville when he went back to his high school, in Crystal City, Missouri to announce his candidacy for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.
Forbes and Bradley
The announcement by Forbes, of Bedminster, was closer to Booker’s. The Republican declared his candidacy online in March 1999, just a year after the birth of Google. Later the same day, he traveled to New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, to make brief remarks before supporters and take reporters’ questions. This was Forbes’ second try; he ran unsuccessfully in 1996, as well.
American greatness and the American dream were common themes in all the candidates’ speeches to one extent or another. The details changed, in part because of current events at the time. The message and delivery differed greatly with the candidates’ personalities.
In the text of his remarks posted on his campaign website, Forbes — who was looking to succeed President Bill Clinton — said he was embarking on “a national crusade to restore Ronald Reagan’s vision of hope and prosperity for all Americans.” Forbes’s speech was highly critical of the Democrat’s policies and longer on specific pledges, emphasizing “a rebirth of freedom in America,” than on inspiration.
Bradley spent a lot of time talking about growing up in Missouri, his family, basketball and his “adopted state” of New Jersey. He spoke of reducing childhood poverty, giving more Americans health insurance, reducing the role of “big money in politics, and gun control. But Bradley’s remarks were far more thoughtful than those of Forbes and included some themes similar to those Booker discussed last Friday.
“We’re mighty and unstoppable when we all flow together,” Bradley said, after remarking that Americans were cynical about politics and the difficulty the parties were having in getting along. “I’m calling on us to renew faith in each other as neighbors … The leadership called for in this moment goes beyond the presidency and into every home and every heart.”
On The View, Booker echoed a similar theme in summing up his reasons for running for president: “I’m running to restore our sense of common purpose, to focus on the common pain we have all over this country. We can do better, and I am going to be in it to show folks that when we come together, stand together, work together, there is nothing we can’t do.”
Christie, more confrontational
Christie, whose persona was that of a fighter, also talked about working together, though in less flowery language, “Not only can all of us achieve whatever dream we want to achieve, because of the place where we live and the opportunities that it gives us, but not only can we do it together, but we have to do it together. We have no choice but to work together, this country needs to work together again, not against each other.”
The tone of Christie’s remarks was more confrontational and stark, delivered in a booming voice into a hand-held microphone. He said that Americans were “filled with anxiety” because “government doesn’t even pretend to work anymore” and that the world was “as dangerous and as frightening as I have seen it in our lifetime.” Americans, he continued, needed to accept hard truths and embrace a strong leader who would tell it like it is.
“You’re going to get what I think whether you like it or not or whether it makes you cringe every once and a while or not,” Christie declared.
The last New Jerseyan to run for governor got along well with the current candidate, even though they are of different political parties. The two made a video together for the 2012 New Jersey Legislative Correspondents’ Club Dinner in which Booker changed a tire on Christie’s car and pushed the governor out of the way so he would not be hit by a falling baby — Booker also caught and saved the baby. It made light of the publicity the then-mayor had received for saving a neighbor from a burning building and helping shovel snow on the streets of Newark. The two also worked well together on revitalizing Newark, with Christie giving generous tax incentives to help bring companies into the city.
But the tone and delivery of Booker’s remarks on Friday could not have been more different from Christie’s announcement nearly four years ago.
Evoking Martin Luther King
Like Christie, Booker talked about his childhood, his parents’ influence on him and his past accomplishments. But in expressing his vision of the future, Booker was more of a soft-spoken preacher, whose word choices often evoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We used to be a people who would point to the sky, look at the moon and change it from a dream to a destiny,” Booker said as he stood outside his brick house in jeans and a wool coat open at the neck while the dozens of reporters he addressed were bundled in coats, hats, scarves and gloves against the 20-degree temperature.
“It’s tough work, building a great community, or what King called ‘a beloved community,’” continued Booker, who often quotes the slain civil rights leader. “It’s hard to do that, but it’s about time we get to the hard work of building this nation to be who we want us to be, our best values, our best ideals, the best of who we are. We need leadership in this country that understands what patriotism is and patriotism is love of your country. You can’t love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen.”
“Love” and “grace” are not words spoken in the typical political address, particularly given the current polarized climate in the United States and the name-calling from the White House. Booker said the way to beat President Donald Trump is not to engage in negative combativeness.
“The people I admire are the people that lead by calling out the best of who we are, not the worst,” Booker said. “I believe in these values. I am going to put them before the American people and, hey, if that’s not what they want, then I won’t be the next president. But I know the goodness, the decency across this country. I’ve experienced it … I believe in, and I’m putting my faith in that message.”
Talking up his achievements in Newark
Booker lauded his accomplishments in Newark — adding affordable housing while simultaneously beginning the commercial construction boom that brought new jobs and new residents to the city. He also touted his ability to work with Republicans on the enactment of criminal-justice reform and the opportunity-zone program to boost investment in distressed urban and rural areas. He called in broad terms for changes in the tax code to help individuals, reducing healthcare costs, improving education and investing in infrastructure.
But Booker’s most memorable remarks were the broader calls to action.
“We need to come together and stop tearing each other down,” he said to end his remarks. “We have a greater calling that that: to elevate our children, take care of the elderly, be there for each other. That’s when you are a great nation. That’s when we do things that other people say can’t be done. And that’s what my presidential campaign will be about.”
Whether he will be more successful than past New Jersey presidential candidates remains to be seen. It has been more than a century since anyone with strong ties to the state was elected to the presidency.
The state has sent only two men, both Democrats, to the White House. Grover Cleveland, the only president born in New Jersey, is also the only man to hold non-consecutive terms — 1885-1889 and 1893-1897. Woodrow Wilson, who served from 1913-1921, was born in Virginia, but joined the Princeton University staff in 1890, served as its president from 1902 to 1910 and was elected New Jersey governor, serving little more than two years before assuming the presidency of the United States.
Timing of NJ’s primary a disadvantage
While Booker is polling a distant fifth in Real Clear Politics’ average of recent Democratic presidential candidate polls, the first test — the Iowa caucuses — are still roughly a year away. Booker traveled the country stumping for other Democratic candidates last year and he heads to Iowa later this week.
One disadvantage a candidate from New Jersey has is the timing of the state’s primary, which is typically one of the last in the nation. Hailing from a state with an early primary, or being popular in such a state, can give a candidate a boost early in the process.
Still, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, sees a path to the nomination for Booker. He said Booker jumped into the race last Friday to prevent California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is also black, from gaining momentum with the voters Booker is courting.
“He has a lane, that lane is African-American voters,” Murray said of Booker’s chances. “He is trying to solidify that base.”
Murray said Booker may not win either Iowa or New Hampshire, but he is well-liked in South Carolina. He said the senator decided to meet the press in front of his home in Newark because that will play well with voters in the state holding the fourth Democratic primary contest next year.
“After South Carolina, then you’re down to three or four candidates, at most,” Murray continued. “He could be one of those three or four. Then he has to extend his appeal.”