My First Campaign Event
DES MOINES, Iowa – Last Tuesday I attended a stump speech by Senator Cory Booker in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination for the upcoming Iowa caucuses. As someone who has not ever attended such an event, it was interesting on several levels. To begin, the venue was the backyard of the Polk County DNC chair’s barn-shaped townhome. Humble scenes of presidential candidates giving speeches from a local man’s back porch in the middle of winter are exactly the kind of political salesmanship that I came in for.
To my great pleasure, when Sen. Booker began his speech to sell us his candidacy he went in with a playful and personal manner that one would expect at such a humble location. He used dad jokes, stories that his father had told him about his life and his experiences as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to build a narrative containing his values and vision for America. His focus was on unity, compromise, and standing up for others in times of hardship. Overall, his skills were quite excellent in terms of getting across his message, mostly avoiding berating his rivals, and showing an understandable vision for America. However, he did not keep entirely positive during his speech, as he spent some time enumerating what he sees as America’s current issues such as income inequality, low social mobility, and divisiveness.
One quite intriguing part of his speech that bears mentioning before moving on was his focus on leadership, not policy. In a rather interesting twist on things, Sen. Booker did not claim to have the best policies or ideas in the current race for president. Instead, he emphasized that he was a quality leader, a man who can find the best man for every job that needs to be done. This is where he most elaborated on his experience as Newark mayor, explaining the major turn-around that he managed to pull on the local economy and education system.
Unfortunately, his showing of good qualities as a candidate seemed to end right with his speech as he transitioned to answering questions. Many of the questions posed towards Sen. Booker were regarding what policies he was bringing to the table, as one would expect. Here he generally affirmed people’s interests and promised change while not actually bringing up specific policy measures. In fact, when a UCLA reporter asked Sen. Booker what he thought of the criticism that his campaign was weak on policy specifics, Booker merely replied, “I’ve never heard that criticism before” and “just go to my website for my comprehensive policies.”
This highlighted the problem I observed in Sen. Booker’s campaign strategy, in that it has no backbone which sets it apart from the rest of the Democratic candidates in practice. He can have as many good ideas as he wants on his website, but he must give the audience some things to think about and take away from his events. For certain I think this also gave an impression of a lack of strong organization at his speech, as he clearly was not prepared to discuss policy as he generally dodged mentioning anything specific. I found this most ironic since he spent so much of his time trying to convince the audience of his ability to lead and pick people with good ideas when his campaign gives the impression of the opposite.