BRENTWOOD, N.H. • Sen. Cory Booker sat on the family-room floor with New Hampshire state Sen. Jon Morgan and his wife Katie, a physician assistant, until past midnight on July 13.
The next morning at 8, the room was the scene of a gymnastics show as the New Jersey Democrat swung the Morgans’ sons high into the air, and upside down, as cartoons played in the background. Booker spent the night with the Morgans, their three sons and three dogs Saturday, an experience Morgan described as “a little surreal.”
Booker is one of at least five Democratic presidential candidates this election season who have chosen, at least on occasion, to forgo hotels and stay with friends, activists and local elected officials vetted by his team. It is a way to save money, build support—and take traditional retail politicking to an even more personal level.
Beside Booker, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have bunked with supporters.
“When you’re running an uphill, long shot, underdog campaign, you look for opportunities to stretch a dollar as far as you can,” said former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who stayed with several people when he sought the 2016 Democratic nomination.
They are following in a long, occasionally colorful tradition.
In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton stayed with John Broderick, a lawyer who later would become the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The next morning, Clinton decided to go for a jog. Broderick remembers the temperature being single-digits and telling Clinton he couldn’t go out with just his Arkansas sweatshirt. So, he said, “I dressed him up. He looked like a snowman.”
The next day, a neighbor called Broderick and told him that she had almost called the police after seeing “an unusual man” bundled up running through the neighborhood.
Al Gore was vice president when he sought the 2000 Democratic nomination, meaning he traveled with a security detail. But that didn’t stop him from staying with then-New Hampshire state Sen. Sylvia Larsen and her family. The Secret Service set up shop in her garage, and the military attaché slept in a twin bed in a pink guest room.
Larsen fondly remembers the visit and how Gore was “delightful” with her two children. Her only regret? “Later on, I figured out I hadn’t put a fresh bar of soap in the shower.”
Former Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brought his seven children and wife Karen to stay in a cabin on Steve and Jan Boender’s farm in Iowa during the 2012 presidential race. Santorum described as “an almost idyllic couple of weeks,” where his children drove tractors, ate sweet corn off the stalk and learned how to gut fish.
In an earlier era, President Washington didn’t stay with supporters before he became president because he didn’t campaign. After he was elected in 1789, Washington toured the new country and did stay at private homes, when he had to. If he could, he would stay at inns so he didn’t look like he was favoring anyone, said Mary V. Thompson, research historian at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
President Lincoln also didn’t campaign for the presidency, because it was seen as “beneath the dignity of the office.” But he did campaign for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858. Ahead of the third debate, he stayed with the local Republican candidate for Congress, said historian Michael Burlingame.
Jimmy Carter chose to stay with supporters when he ran for president in 1976 because “there was just no money for hotels,” said Dorothy “Dot” Padgett, a campaign organizer who later worked in the Carter administration. Padgett said the Carters would seek invitations from people they barely knew. “It took nerve, don’t you think?” she said.
After Carter was elected president, he hosted a special inauguration party to thank those who had hosted him during the campaign.
Candidates are permitted to stay for free with supporters — and avoid documentation — because the Federal Election Campaign Act allows people to offer up their house without it being considered a “contribution,” said Paul Seamus Ryan, a vice president at the progressive group Common Cause, which advocates for greater transparency in government.
During former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign for the Democratic nomination, his overnight spots included a couch in a college dorm and a shack without running water or electricity. He said he was running against “the confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting,” so hotel stays weren’t appropriate.
But never staying in a hotel means you have to be a bit more careful, and some reports from 1992 said Brown was a messy houseguest. He took issue with the description when The Wall Street Journal asked him about it, even offering to put his wife on the phone to refute the claim. Jodie Evans, who was his campaign manager at the time, said that Brown isn’t not messy, he just “makes himself at home.…But he’s polite.”
She did say one host complained that Brown left the cap off a tube of toothpaste, and there were “wet towels, for sure.”
Staying with supporters has the effect of lengthening the campaign day for many candidates who already have been talking with voters all day at events all around the state.
Booker said he still found time during the stays with supporters to unwind through prayer and meditation when he was in the privacy of a guest bedroom. “I still get the head space, but I get the added benefit of some community,” he said.
Even after long days on the campaign trail, he said he didn’t mind going back to someone’s house to talk into the night. Those stays, in fact, have given him “some of the best conversations in this entire campaign.”
And in at least one case, those interactions earned him a voter.
“I was already a fan but after the visit he did win me over,” said Pat Kalik, who hosted Booker earlier this year and endorsed him officially Friday. Kalik, a Democratic activist who works in telecommunications, was sold on his candidacy by the combination of his policies and his “sincerity.” After the sleepover, he sent her both a handwritten note and a video thank-you.