OPINION — Any presidential candidate who wants half a chance of winning the South Carolina primary in 2020 knew to show up to Rep. James E. Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry in Columbia last month. In fact, 22 of them did. But only one — Sen. Cory Booker — also knew to go see Clyburn’s barber, Herbert Toliver, the next morning.
At Toliver’s Mane Event on Columbia’s North Main Street, Booker showed up with a broad smile and a dad joke — the best way, it turns out, for a bald New Jersey politician to break the ice in a South Carolina hair cuttery. “Do you have anything to GROW hair?” he asked, to the roar of 20 or so men already at Toliver’s for their Saturday cut. And with that, the senator dove into an hourlong give-and-take with a collection of dads, police deputies, postal workers and Toliver’s regulars, executing his campaign’s early state strategy to win over voters over one by one.
First Booker told the men, many of whom had brought young children along, what was on his mind (creating jobs, improving health care, reforming the criminal justice system and beating Donald Trump). Then he asked what was on theirs.
“We are men who are leading our families and trying to go the right way,” Kevin Felder told Booker. “What is it about you that we don’t get from the other candidates?”
There’s a lot about Booker that sets him apart, not the least of which is that he’s one of just two African American men in the field. He’s also the only candidate (or senator) who lives in a “black and brown community,” as he describes his Newark neighborhood. “I grew up going to barber shops like this. I joined the city council to fight for the issues that we’ve been talking about in barber shops since I was a kid.”
One of those issues is criminal justice reform, Booker’s primary focus since he joined the Senate in 2013. “We know in communities of color that it isn’t a war on drugs, it’s a war on people,” he said, to the nodding heads of the men in the room. Booker also talked about issues of unique importance to the black community that other candidates rarely mention on the trail, like funding for sickle cell research and the connection between eviction rates for children and incarceration rates when those same children reach adulthood. “That’s a trauma in those kids’ lives,” he said. His audience didn’t need to see the data to know that was true.
When one man said he worried about keeping young black men in his neighborhood out of prison, Booker stepped forward to listen in. “What you’re saying is so close to my heart,” Booker responded.
As smooth as the Yale-educated Booker comes across on television, there’s an authenticity to his one-on-one conversations that is not yet translating on a national or even statewide scale. Voters who haven’t met him say he’s one of many they’re impressed by. Several of the men who met him at Toliver’s said he’s now the one they’d choose for president.
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The first among them was Herbert Toliver himself, whose barber shop is a must-do stop for Democrats seeking just about any office in South Carolina.
“What stood out for me is that he said he is from this type of neighborhood. He’s seen the things that are in our neighborhood that are problematic, like drugs and alcohol, and he wants to address those issues,” Toliver said. “For him to step up and say he wants to better it, that touched my heart. It resonated with me and I said, ‘That’s my man.’”
Toliver expects more candidates to come to the shop as primary day approaches. “To be honest with you, we’re looking for the former vice president,” he said of Joe Biden, the man leading the state in the polls but whose campaign has been limited to a few public events and national television interviews. “We love Joe Biden,” Toliver said. “But you can’t vote for two.”
While South Carolina presents a challenge for most of the candidates, it could be a breakout opportunity for Booker. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where the primary- and caucus-goers are more than 90 percent white, no candidate can win the South Carolina primary or the Democratic nomination itself without winning over black voters in the process. A strong showing there can erase memories of Iowa and New Hampshire and catapult presidential campaigns forward. A bad result usually ends them.
At the moment, Biden holds a narrow lead in most national polls, but crucially has an outsize lead in South Carolina, where a Fox News poll last week shows him winning 41 percent of the black voters in the state. Not only do voters there know him, he’s been a frequent visitor for decades and is seen as crucial to Barack Obama’s success as president. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris are a distant second and third behind Biden, with Booker, not Elizabeth Warren, sitting at fourth among black voters.
That poll and others seem to show the results of Booker’s effort to get in front of as many voters as possible. But they also show the challenge he is facing. Many of those who meet him are invariably won over, but with 24 candidates in the race and seven months left to campaign, how do you scale that kind of in-person connection?
Booker seems to have assembled the right kind of team to figure it out. His campaign manager, longtime Democratic operative Addisu Demissie, ran Gavin Newsom’s successful campaign for California governor and is African American himself. The campaign’s ground game in South Carolina already has 11 full-time staff and 40 volunteers. It will be their job to win the trust of voters on Booker’s behalf, since there are only so many barber shops a bald man can visit in South Carolina before the voting begins.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.