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Cory Booker and the “Celebrity” Charge

The evergreen electoral strategy in which an underdog candidate tries to turn his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness is high risk and high reward. The reward is obvious enough, if successful. But the risk is that the effort will simply remind the public why they liked the candidate in the first place. Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s opponents in the Democratic Senate primary in New Jersey are ready to take that chance.

A super-PAC called the American Commitment Action Fund has released a tough ad echoing criticism Booker has heard before: his commitment to a national profile has come at the expense of the city he is supposed to be governing. But recent polling suggests the ad might end up reinforcing Booker’s appeal among Democratic primary voters. The ad itself, running nearly two minutes, casts Booker as an absentee mayor who consolidates power in his hands while weakening the city government around him:

 

           

As I wrote last year, one estimate found Booker spending one out of every five days out of state, and the line in the ad that to see Booker you’d have to turn on Meet the Press will surely resonate with some voters. And it’s understandable that his opponents would seek to turn Booker’s major advantage in a brief primary season–his national profile–into a weakness. But the latest Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters has some bad news for his rivals, Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

To say Booker is polling well would be an understatement. He gets 49 percent of the vote overall, and his nearest competitor is Pallone with 12 percent. And he may just be turning the tables on his opponents, neutralizing their natural advantages while retaining his own:

Among four factors offered in the poll, experience to get things done in Washington was most often named as the most important: 34 percent of primary voters said so. Second most important was being true to core Democratic values, at 22 percent.

Holt and Pallone are Washington veterans and have claimed to be the “true” Democratic progressives in the race. But among voters who labeled experience as the most important factor, Booker won 42 percent support, compared with 15 percent for Pallone, 10 percent for Holt, and 4 percent for Oliver.

Last month, I mentioned the reason Booker would benefit from having Holt in the race. Pallone was already planning to run, having been Lautenberg’s preferred successor anyway. But the fact that Holt threw his hat in the ring only further solidified Booker’s advantage. Holt and Pallone represent adjacent House districts. As such, they will be competing for the same voter base. Yet the Monmouth poll makes clear that even without Holt in the race, Pallone couldn’t take those voters for granted:

Even in Central New Jersey, where Pallone and Holt have their political bases, Booker got 39 percent of the likely primary vote, compared with 19 percent for Pallone and 16 percent for Holt.

That prompted a note of incredulity from Monmouth’s polling director Patrick Murray: “Cory Booker’s lead appears to be impregnable. There is very little in the poll that shows a path for the other candidates to overtake him.” Murray then revealed why the super-PAC ad may redound to Booker’s benefit:

While Booker has often chafed at the “celebrity” label his opponents have tried to slap on him, his overwhelming name recognition is a key factor in his polling and fund-raising lead.

“At the end of the day, New Jersey Democrats would be satisfied with any of these candidates as their nominee for U.S. Senate. They are simply going for the one they feel they know best,” Murray said.

That about sums it up: N.J. Democrats really don’t see much difference between the candidates, but Booker is famous and popular. In addition, Booker’s national profile may convince some N.J. Democrats that his election could end up being a boon to the state’s influence in a way electing Pallone or Holt would not, since Booker would not suffer the anonymity common to freshman senators who don’t have the seniority (or immediate presidential aspirations) they would usually need to receive invitations to the Sunday morning talk shows.

The primary is three weeks away, and that is not much time to make up this ground. There is plenty of legitimate criticism of Booker’s use of social media to enable his reputation to reach heights nationally that it doesn’t locally. (Though it would certainly be unfair to claim that his Twitter activity is a complete waste of time; in the age of big government, there is something to be said for a responsive executive who is easy to contact and joyfully engages his constituents.) But polling shows that name recognition is the surest way to win a primary that voters see as mostly ideologically meaningless. Casting Booker as a celebrity is unlikely to deter those voters.


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