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Cory Booker showed he can be a contender

The New Jersey senator had a solid performance in the first night of the first Democratic debate.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker amongst a field of contenders during the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate held on on June 26, 2019.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker among a field of contenders during the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate held on June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) isn’t currently a top-tier candidate in the Democratic primary polls — but the first night of the party’s first presidential debate Wednesday made clear he could be.

It’s not that Booker’s message and policy proposals were noticeably different from those of the other contenders onstage; they weren’t. Booker’s advantage was in style and delivery — he’s a good speaker who can command attention, weave in personal anecdotes, and combine outrage-inducing and inspiring rhetoric.

“I live in a low-income black and brown community and see every day this economy is not working for average Americans,” he said in his first answer. “I think I’m the only one, I hope I am, that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” he said later to a gun control question.

Booker spoke compellingly on a range of issues without getting lost in policy-wonk weeds. He spoke about Immigration and Customs Enforcement “ripping” away families from children, and said that too many health care companies are “profiteering off of the pain of people in America.” But he also offered a positive message in his closing statement, saying he would beat President Donald Trump “by calling this country to a sense of common purpose again.”

Google Trends — which tracks, in real time, what people are searching for — showed that he got the biggest and most frequent spikes in interest of the major candidates onstage. Again and again, when Booker started talking, a lot of people Googled him. (The red line in the image represents searches for Booker.)

Google Trends

On paper, it has seemed that Booker at least has the potential to replicate the Democratic coalition of upscale and nonwhite voters that powered Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and Hillary Clinton to victory in the 2016 primary. And he has occasionally gotten good buzz in the early states.

When it comes to polls, however, Booker’s campaign hasn’t yet gained traction. Nationally, he’s been at the 2 to 3 percent level, which puts him notably below the top tier of candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. (He is still, however, likely in a good position to make it into the third debate, which will have stricter qualification rules.)

Luckily for Booker, none of those candidates, except Warren, were onstage with him. And unlike Beto O’Rourke — another candidate for whom hopes were once high — Booker managed to stand out from the pack by speaking in a compelling and effective way.

There was no viral moment for Booker, and nothing likely to immediately propel him into the top tier of candidates. But the night was a good reminder that he remains a skilled and effective politician, and that he at least has the real potential to be a major player down the road in this race.