Can Booker’s ‘Love’ Ad Woo Enough Voters to Win a Place in Next Democratic Debate?

COLLEEN O'DEA | DECEMBER 3, 2019 

NJ Spotlight

With less than 10 days to boost his polling numbers to qualify for the next Democratic presidential debate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has released his first ads. He may also get a bounce from ads that a New Jersey super PAC began airing at about the same time.

Booker’s “Love” ad, his first “digital persuasion” offering, began running Sunday and is an effort to get the former Newark mayor on the debate stage in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, according to his campaign. In a post last week on Medium, Booker’s campaign manager Addisu Demissie characterized the push as “a six-figure ad buy” on radio and digital platforms, although he declined to give specifics. He also wrote that the campaign hopes to raise enough money to run its first television ads in Iowa and South Carolina.

Booker needs a big bump in the polls if he is going to make the next Democratic debate. The Democratic National Committee has been ramping up the criteria for qualifying, and in order to be on the stage for the next debate, a candidate must have received at least 6% support in two polls in the four early nominating states or 4% in four polls released between Oct. 16 and Dec. 12. Booker, who has qualified for all the debates so far, has not polled at greater than 3% anywhere since Oct. 16 and he is averaging 1.8% support in all polls, according to Real Clear Politics.

Too early, too late — or both?

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the campaign’s ad buy is both early and possibly too late.

“He might be a little early; he is not going to have a lot of money for mass-media advertising and he has to conserve it to use later in the campaign,” Murray said. As for whether the ads will be enough to propel Booker into the debate, Murray added, “Probably not. Six percent is a hard number to get to that quickly, plus it is not clear there will be multiple polls out of Iowa by then.”

Still, “it makes sense that he roll the dice now,” and start spending on ads, Murray concluded.

New Jersey’s junior senator, whose seat in the upper house of Congress is also on the ballot next year, has met the other debate requirement — contributions from 200,000 unique donors. Booker met that following his performance in the last debate on Nov. 20, raising more than $1 million on debate night and in the four days that followed it, according to Demissie.

So far, only six of 16 candidates currently in the race have qualified for the next debate: former Vice President Joe Biden; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Senate Democrats; Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“The most important thing we can do for Cory Booker right now is to ensure that every dollar spent, every volunteer shift booked, every waking moment our campaign staff spends in the next two weeks is geared toward persuading voters that Cory should be their first choice in this contest,” Demisse wrote in last week’s Medium post.

Civil rights marchers and white supremacists

Booker’s ad, which contrasts video clips of civil rights marchers and the bombing of a Freedom Rider bus in 1961 and torch-carrying white nationalists and white supremacists in 2017, repeats his positive campaign messages of love and unity.

“We win when we come together and show the best of who we are against the worst that we face,” Booker says in the ad. “That’s how we’ve beaten demagogues and bigots before, that’s how we’ll beat Donald Trump. And that’s how I’ll lead as your president.”

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University, noted that Booker’s campaign has targeted Iowa and South Carolina, in particular, as part of its strategy for winning the nomination. While Booker has had strong ground organizations in those places, now may be the right time to start spending on ads given the volunteer efforts have not paid dividends in higher poll numbers.

“It seems possible that Booker could get 6% there and 6% in Iowa if he spends all his money on ad buys in those states,” Hale said.

At virtually the same time as the Booker campaign was unveiling its ad, a recently formed super PAC named United We Win announced its own $200,000 “Iowa Week of Action” program that includes TV ads in multiple markets and targeted digital ads statewide, as well as calls to likely caucus participants — all aimed at boosting Booker’s candidacy. The United We Win ad, “The Other Rhodes Scholar,” is meant to direct attention away from Buttigieg, also a Rhodes Scholar, who at an average 11.4% support is polling significantly better than Booker. It touts Booker’s accomplishments as a senator and former mayor and outlines his policies on health care, marijuana and gun control.

“Cory doesn’t just talk. He brings people together to make things happen,” the ad states. It ends on a note similar to that of Booker’s “Love” ad, stating, “This Rhodes Scholar mayor has what it takes to beat Donald Trump.”

In an interview on CNN last Friday, Booker said he had not seen the ad. In the past he has said he opposes the use of super PACs.

Are Booker’s pockets deep enough?

Having two different ads running in key states can only help Booker, particularly when his campaign does not have to pay for both. According to Federal Election Commission filings through Sept. 30, Booker was the eighth-biggest fundraiser among Democratic presidential candidates at that time. Still, the $18.5 million he had raised was only a quarter as much as Sanders, who was the top fundraiser at that time, and since then billionaire Michael Bloomberg has entered the race. CNBC reported that Bloomberg spent $13.2 million on TV ads in 14 states in just his first week as a candidate.

Murray said advertising can make a difference in boosting a candidate, “but if you are going to have that kind of impact, you are going to have to saturate the market.”

Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions and others, provided they don’t coordinate with the candidate they support. United We Win expects to spend $1 million on digital ads targeted at moderate Democrats throughout the country through the end of the year.

The organization filed with the FEC early last month, listing Jean Swibinski as its treasurer, and has not yet disclosed its funders but they are likely tied to Gov. Phil Murphy and his wing of the state Democratic party.

Swibinski is a founder of Vision Media Marketing, Inc., whose Secaucus address is the same as the super PAC. Phil Swibinski, vice president of VMMI and son of Jean and co-founder Paul Swibinski, is United We Win’s spokesman. He is also a spokesman for New Direction NJ, the independent spending group supporting Gov. Phil Murphy, and for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

“Our party needs to rally around a candidate with a progressive platform and a pragmatic, results-oriented outlook in order to beat Donald Trump,” Phil Swibinski said in a statement announcing the pro-Booker effort. “Iowa Democrats want to support a leader with a vision for our country’s future, and a Rhodes Scholar mayor is exactly what we need — but Cory Booker is the only one with a record of delivering real change both in Washington and in his own community.”

One PAC up, one PAC down

United We Win starts up at the same time another pro-Booker super PAC is shutting down. Dream United was formed early this year by Steve Phillips, a wealthy Democrat and college classmate of Booker’s. The group’s website announced last week, “We remain firm in our belief that Senator Cory Booker is uniquely qualified to unite and heal Americans across this country at this critical point in our history. Respecting the Senator’s publicly-stated sentiments about SuperPACs, Dream United will cease operations effective immediately.” According to the FEC, the PAC had raised $1.1 million through June 30.

After announcing his candidacy on Twitter and outside his Newark home at the start of Black History Month, Booker’s candidacy has failed to gain traction. He has never polled in double digits, peaking at 9% in an Emerson poll conducted two weeks after his announcement.

“Senator Booker has done exceptionally well in the debates according to pundits,” said Seton Hall’s Hale. “It hasn’t been enough to move voters but they remain his best shot to remain relevant. Why Booker hasn’t caught on is a mystery. One possibility is that people assume he is a progressive and that lane is crowded with others. He is more of a centrist but doesn’t seem to want to embrace that and try to compete for that lane.”

Some have said Booker’s positive message and talk of love and unity are not working. Murray said the problem is the way he has been delivering it. The more forceful ends to both ads could be an effort to change that.

“Everybody loves the message. They’re just not sure whether this is the guy who is going to lead them into the end zone,” Murray said. “The way Booker has been delivering his message has been, ‘We need to do this,’ not ‘I’m the only guy who can get us there,’” he said. “That’s where his strategy needs to change.”

While Murray said missing this month’s debate would not eliminate Booker from contention, it would make his job even more difficult than it already is.

“His (Booker) game has always been a long one,” said Murray, noting the senator’s strategy has been to stay in at least through South Carolina’s late February primary, which Booker has been working hard to win. “He can stay in the mix as long as he remains relevant … Not making the debate makes it harder for him to make his case.”

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