WASHINGTON -- Cory Booker spent the first five months of his presidential bid dispensing a message of love and unity. But it hasn't caught on with a Democratic electorate that is seething with anger toward President Donald Trump and desperate to throw him out of office.
The New Jersey senator long seen as a potential star of Democratic politics is struggling to break out of the second tier of candidates. Now, he is refining his core pitch, melding his vow to unite all Americans in a "common purpose" of healing the country's divisions with a validation of the rage of his party's voters.
"Anger and love are not mutually exclusive. You can still be angry and lead with love," Booker said in an interview in Charleston, S.C., last weekend. He pointed to the example of unifying figures such as civil rights activists, who "didn't let the moral vandalism of others contort them so much as to pull them so low as to hate them. If anything I think it inspired them to bring the strength and the truth and the power of love to bear."
These nuances are out of touch with the mood among many Democrats, for whom President Barack Obama's "hope and change" has given way to an anxious fury about the state of the country. His high-wire act stands in sharp contrast to the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, who mostly bluntly eschew his love-thy-enemy theme and vow instead a scorched-earth campaign to take down Trump.
Booker's early underperformance is a surprise for a candidate who was regarded by many Democrats as a top-tier prospect, and who in recent years has been viewed by Republican operatives as a formidable general-election candidate.
Instead, polls show that many Democratic voters are embracing the far-reaching and structural changes pitched by Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Others lean toward the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who they believe is their safest bet to win the White House.
Nationally, Booker places seventh in a field of two dozen with the support of 2% of Democrats, according to an Economist/YouGov survey released last week. In South Carolina, where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black, Booker is fifth with 5%, according to a Post and Courier poll released Sunday.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how much Booker, who is African American, has struggled to woo black voters. Biden is dominating this demographic nationally, with 50% support in the YouGov poll -- in second place was Sanders with 10%. Booker was backed by just 2%, while Sen. Kamala Harris, the other black candidate in the Democratic race, had 7%.
Biden "certainly is clearly aligned with President Obama, and I think that carries a lot of goodwill for people," said Tony Coles, the chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company Yumanity Therapeutics who co-chairs the Black Economic Alliance. "I think people believe that he has a chance of succeeding in the general election."
Coles said Biden's lead is a reminder that black voters won't reflexively support a black candidate, and that everybody has to earn their support. "The black candidates have not converted in some of these states," he said. "We can never take for granted the contribution of African American voters. That's a mistake that's been made before."