Cory Booker’s primary win: The view from Newark

—Andra Gillespie

Cory Booker’s resounding victory in last week’s Democratic primary to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg was no surprise to most observers. Booker had been the overwhelming favorite in all of the polls leading up to the primary; he had the highest name recognition of all the candidates in the field; and he was able to raise more than twice as much money as his nearest competitor, despite having started the contest behind in fundraising. Indeed, Booker seems to represent the type of “new black politician,” whose race does not seem to hamper his ability to raise money and earn votes outside of the African American community.

In a book also titled The New Black Politician, I examined Cory Booker’s ascent to Newark’s mayoralty and its implications for African American politics. While Booker’s strong performance in a statewide contest was no surprise, his path to Newark’s mayoralty was a little bumpier. He lost his first mayoral bid to an incumbent who did not hesitate to play the race card against Booker in the African American community. While Booker was able to rebound and essentially push Sharpe James out of the 2006 race, questions of Booker’s racial authenticity and perceived instrumentality remained. At various points during Booker’s seven years as mayor of Newark, a vocal minority of mostly black residents has at various points questioned his political appointments, his policies, and even his very residence in Newark. For his part, Booker was publicly chastised early in his first term for telling stories about Newark residents that many Newarkers deemed insensitive to blacks and poor people. Perhaps most discouraging, Booker’s alliances with black members of Newark’s city council have frayed to the point that the black members of the council, all but one of whom were aligned with Booker in some way at one point in their professional lives, now routinely oppose his agenda.

While I never had any doubt that Booker would win this primary (or even that he would win in Newark), I was very curious about the dynamics that would undergird this vote. So, I traveled to Newark this summer to do some investigating. I wondered if Newarkers would support Booker as he sought higher office and if so, what motivated that support? I hypothesized that black Newarkers would support Booker in a senate campaign, but not for the most obvious reasons. I thought that race pride might undergird some of Booker’s support among Newark blacks, but I also expected to find a more complicated story. In particular, I prepared myself to learn that the aspects of Booker’s personality that were perceived as mayoral liabilities would be viewed as senatorial assets.

I first tested my hypotheses by asking questions and listening in on the scuttlebutt in June.  Sure enough, I found evidence to suggest that Booker would have no problem winning the votes of some of his most ardent opponents. I happened to run into a local community activist who actually helped lead a failed recall effort against Booker in 2007 one day in June. I asked her to handicap the race for me, and she made it very clear that she was supporting Booker.  As she explained it, the other opponents were okay, but not good enough, and she was confident that Booker would do a good job as senator.

I had a similar encounter in Newark on Election Night. I attended Booker’s victory party in Championship Plaza, where I ran into another ardent Booker opponent. He was beaming with pride at Booker’s success, bragging about how he’s known him since he was a young tenant organizer. As he continued to bask in the glow of Booker’s victory, he explained his change of heart. They may have fought tooth and nail over local issues, but this organizer had no doubt that he and Booker saw eye to eye on issues of national concern. And it was clear that he perceived some cachet in knowing the man who was poised to be senator.

The anecdotal evidence seemed to be pointing in the direction of Newarkers letting bygones be bygones. Yes, the vocal opposition had their issues with what they perceived to be Booker’s neoliberal, corparatist city policies that often limited their influence.  However, those issues seemed to have been of minimal concern in the senate contest.  The opposition seemed content to root for the “hometown boy,” even if some of them had their doubts about him as mayor.

To supplement my anecdotes, I fielded a short survey among likely voters the day before the election in Newark. I’m still analyzing the data, and the sample size is small (so my margins of error are larger than I’d like them to be). Despite these limitations, the unweighted data pretty clearly shows that Newarkers have a complicated relationship with Booker. In my poll, about 20% of respondents claimed to undecided (and not leaning towards any particular candidate) the day before the election. Booker ended up winning 64% of the vote in Newark, so I assume that most of those undecided voters ended up voting for him. Still, it was surprising to see so many people be so coy the day before an election. Then again, I personally knew people who admitted to agonizing over their primary vote choice.

In addition to tracking the primary vote, I also asked respondents a trait battery, where they had to say whether certain adjectives or phrases described Booker well or not. I tested a wide array of positive and negative descriptions of Booker to gain a comprehensive understanding of how Newarkers perceive him. The unweighted results were illuminating. Newarkers simultaneously hold positive and negative (though mostly positive) views of Booker. While significant majorities reported that they thought “cares only about his political career” describes Booker extremely or pretty well, significant majorities also thought that Booker “is genuinely concerned for the less fortunate,” “provides strong leadership,” and stands up for African Americans, New Jersey and Newark separately.  A significant majority also conceded that Booker would likely win the Democratic primary.

I am still at the beginning of my data analysis. Soon, I will delve into the econometric analysis of the weighted data. At a first glance, though, there seems to be credence to the idea that Newark voters, particularly black ones, are engaging in what my colleague Lorrie Frasure Yokley calls “Jekyll and Hyde politics.” That is, they have different expectations for how black politicians should behave at the local and statewide level. While the utility of being deracialized or neoliberal was hotly contested when Booker was a citywide candidate, Newarkers recognize that those strategies serve him well as a senator, and they are happy to support him.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).


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