Cory Booker’s Slump: Real but Overrated

Is this the face of a worried man?

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The political conventional wisdom machine has put Cory Booker through the Stations of the Gaffe. A month ago, it was assumed that Booker would win the New Jersey race for U.S. Senate in a walk. Since then he’s fallen from a lead in the high double digits to the low … double digits. His comeuppance has come in local coverage, in Politico (“it’s a chance to test whether Booker has a glass jaw”), in the New York Times, and now in a Chris Cillizza tweet that tells readers just how damning the New York Times story is:

As one of those easily wooed reporters who met and liked Booker early (in 2006), I’m glad to see him sweat a little for this win. But he’s only sweating a little. In the Times, Michael Barbaro quotes Monmouth’s pollster saying Booker should be winning by no less than 20 points. In the RCP average of polls, he’s leading by 18. In Monmouth, Booker’s gone from a 16-point lead in June to a 16-point lead in August to a 13-point lead in October. At this rate, Republican candidate Steve Lonegan will overtake Booker at some point in 2015.

The election is next Wednesday.

Has Booker’s lead fallen? Yes. Most coverage of the Booker slump has been proved by a link to the Quinnipiac poll, which showed his lead slipping from the mid-20s to 12 points. That same poll has shown Gov. Chris Christie increasing his lead from the mid-20s to 32 points over poor state Sen. Barbara Buono. It obscured the fact that most polls also show Christie slipping while still winning. In Monmouth, for example, Christie’s gone from 42 points up (February) to 30 points up (June) to 19 points up (September).* There is no coverage of a shambling, stumbling Christie campaign, because the partisan model is reasserting itself, and he’s doing what was always likely—winning a massive victory that falls short of the 70-30 landslide Tom Kean won in 1985, when the state was less Democratic generally.

So is the Booker slump real? Read my headline again! Booker’s campaign was faced with the choice of defining Lonegan early or blitzing late, and the choice of keeping the candidate on the trail constantly or letting him raise funds out of the state. These were tough choices. Lonegan’s probably the most conservative candidate for statewide office in New Jersey since 2001 (he opposed, on live TV, the Hurricane Sandy relief package), but history is full of losing campaigns that erred by attacking their opponents early and raising their name ID ineffectively. Booker has to run again in November 2014—did he want to win a smaller victory with a massive war chest, or a larger one with a depleted war chest?

This looks like a campaign that’s largely followed its strategy while suffering very minor setbacks from 1) the candidate talking himself into two-day “scandals,” like the ridiculous nonsexual DM with a Portland stripper, and 2) the press acting unexpectedly like the press. It’s giving Booker his first-ever tough scrutiny, while generally portraying the Republican candidate as a scrappy underdog instead of a well-connected conservative activist with Americans for Prosperity.

UPDATE: Oh, I ignored the hook of that A1 NYT story—Mike Bloomberg is spending $1 million to help Booker in the stretch. It’s billed as Bloomberg’s largest donation to a campaign, though his Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent $2 million to boost Democrat Robin Kelly in a primary for a safe Democratic seat. That donation was always overrated; the pro-gun Democrat crushed in the primary had previously been crushed by Jesse Jackson Jr. when his scandal was already known.

*Correction, Oct. 7, 2013: This post originally misstated Chris Christie’s lead over Barbara Buono in a June Monmouth poll. He led her by 30 points at the time, not 32.