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Cory Booker Departs 2020 Presidential Race


Cory Booker suspended his campaign today. The New Jersey senator is often described as a charismatic speaker, but he struggled to gain traction in the polls. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid recently spent time with Booker in Iowa. She joins us now. Welcome back, Asma.


CORNISH: So this decision from Senator Booker comes a day before the next Democratic debate. He did not get the polling necessary to qualify for that debate, so he wouldn't have been onstage. What did he say about this decision to suspend his campaign altogether?

KHALID: So he released, you know, a video and a letter to supporters. And in it, really, Audie, he made it clear that this comes down to money - that the campaign just did not have the funds to continue. You know, he also pointed out that he is not going to be on the debate stage tomorrow and that it's likely he's going to be occupied with impeachment in the coming weeks. He is a U.S. senator. And so he said, you know, essentially, it's going to be harder to spread his message, talk to voters and raise money if he can't be in those places.

He called this a difficult decision, but he also said that in making it today, he wanted to give some of his backers time to realign ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

CORNISH: When you were in Iowa, how was he playing to crowds there? How did people respond to him?

KHALID: You know, I would say there's a really sort of remarkable disconnect between how crowds view Cory Booker and how fundamentally he doesn't seem to be doing well in the polls. I would say the most common adjective I heard to describe him was the word charismatic. You know, one voter told me that he felt like Booker just radiated positive energy. But then when I asked him if he intended to caucus for him, you know, he would not commit to that. He said Booker was in his top three.

But that's the kind of predicament you kept hearing again and again for Cory Booker. At this point in the campaign, you know, he really needed people to feel like he was their No. 1. That's not what I heard, though they would tell me that they were really moved listening to him. You know, one woman told me that she got goose bumps every time she listened to him but she still wasn't backing him. And, you know, you saw that reflected in his polls. Tomorrow night's debate was going to be the second straight one that he missed due to low poll numbers.

CORNISH: Can we step back for a little analysis here, though? You're hearing this from the voters. What are the other reasons why he, essentially, wasn't gaining traction?

KHALID: You know, Audie, I heard several theories. One person told me that maybe Booker's messages of love and unity just were not what voters wanted this year, that they wanted a fighter. They wanted someone who could beat President Trump. Another person told me that this really just came down to ideology - that we've seen a real split this year between progressives and moderates in the field. And he was trying to stake out a kind of nuanced middle ground.

One thing I should point out, though, is that, you know, Harris - Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the race, as well as Cory Booker, were two of three black candidates in the field. And with his departure, that leaves just one African American candidate, the former governor of Massachusetts, in this race. He's also been struggling as a late entrant. And, you know, I've gotten several reactions of disappointment from voices in the party - African American voices who feel like the diversity within the party is not being represented at tomorrow's debate. All six of those candidates will be white.

CORNISH: The field is now smaller. What does that mean for how people will be basically going after each other, right?

KHALID: Well, we've definitely seen some pointed attacks, you know, leading up to this, particularly between, I would say, Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, and Joe Biden. But what I want to point out is that we had seen largely a nonaggression pact between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. We have begun to see that pact fraying. Today, sources told CNN that Sanders had told Warren he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Sanders called that accusation ludicrous, but it's very clear that this nonaggression pact is over.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.