MIAMI — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had a solid performance Wednesday night in the first of two Democratic debates — and immediately looked to cash in on voters’ newfound curiosity.
“A lot of Americans who didn't know me — my background, the successes I've had as a chief executive, as a senator — they learned a lot,” he told reporters in the spin room at the Ziff Opera House just minutes after leaving the presidential debate stage across the street. “I hope people that were energized by what I had to say... will go to CoryBooker.com and contribute $1 to make sure I'm on future debate stages.”
Such is the challenge for low-polling candidates appearing in the early presidential primary debates. Sure, Booker, as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, had pretty good showings at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Now what?
Candidates needed at least 65,000 individual donors or 1% in three credible national or state-level polls to make the stage Wednesday and Thursday, and the same metrics will apply for next month’s debates, in Detroit. Those numbers will double to 2% and 130,000 donors for the third round of debates in September, per the DNC’s debate rules.
So the challenge for the one-percenters is to turn an able debate showing into real numbers — and quick, before former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders debate with eight other candidates Thursday night and steal back the spotlight.
It’s little surprise, then, that Booker’s team was quick to rush out an email to supporters begging them for a few bucks — one of many campaigns looking to capitalize on their national exposure.
“If you think I belong on the debate stage, then I need to ask directly: People like you are the only chance I have at qualifying for the fall debates. Will you make a donation right now?” Booker’s team emailed backers 10 minutes after the first debate ended.
Castro’s team didn’t even wait until the debate was over, tweeting out an ask halfway through and pinning it to the top of his Twitter profile.
“If you believe we need to keep these issues front and center in the next debates, help make sure Julián makes it there,” his campaign said.
Booker may be the one who's best positioned to break out. He has one of the most robust operations in the early voting state of Iowa, with more than 50 staffers on the ground, and his ground game in New Hampshire is well staffed. He also headed into the debate with a larger fundraising network than some of the other candidates polling in the low single digits. And his recent fight with former Vice President Joe Biden over Biden’s controversial remarks about segregationist senators helped elevate him back into the national conversation even before the debate.
For Castro and de Blasio, who have been operating with skeleton crews, the post-debate period at the head of the pack presents a challenge.
Castro and de Blasio both are running with a grudge and touting their executive experience but have attracted little positive attention despite being the current and former mayors of some of the most populous cities in the country. Castro used to be the mayor of San Antonio and was on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist to be her running mate four years ago.
“I don't want to be a flash-in-the-pan candidate.”
Castro said he hopes to build on his command debate performance by traveling the country, meeting voters and fundraising, all in hopes his candidacy will peak just at the right time — and attract the positive media attention to break through the noise.
“We're going to work to continue to build momentum,” Castro told reporters after the debate. “I don't want to be a flash-in-the-pan candidate. I don't necessarily need to be the front-runner today. I want to be the front-runner on February 3, 2020,” the date of the Iowa caucuses.
It’s clear the campaign needs some more exposure. As of Thursday morning, a Google search for the phrase “Castro donate” showed a page for Castro’s twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) before Julian Castro’s presidential campaign page. Joaquin Castro told VICE News in the spin room that he’s banking on this debate performance leading to better fundraising.
“He's gone to many states, visited a lot of communities. He's going to continue to do that,” he said. “Hopefully this has allowed more Americans to see who he is and what he's about, and hopefully it opens doors.”
Booker got the most speaking time of any candidate onstage, and drew among the most Google searches of the evening, especially during a strong answer on gun control, according to Google Trends. Castro’s fluency on immigration issues and shots at former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) drew strong positive responses from liberal pundits.
De Blasio, meanwhile, answered the question of why he is even running in the first place with a fierce defense of progressivism, also at O'Rourke's expense.
“When I saw what I thought was some real mincing the words, particularly from Beto, I just thought it was important to call it out because ... what is the party gonna stand for?” de Blasio told VICE News in the spin room. “Something like tonight allows that conversation to begin, where people get to take a look, and I think when they look, they're going to see something different than a lot of the other candidates.”
De Blasio admitted it was a crucial night for him to make up ground in the race, adding he’ll now turn his attention to building out his campaign team: “I came in late, no doubt, but I'm getting a chance now to introduce myself.”
The hardest part is over for them. The question moving forward is whether they can make it count.
Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report
Cover: Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) react during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)