Donald Trump this, Ron DeSantis that. The race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has been getting all the attention lately. But at least one person is trying to make fetch (and history) happen on the Democratic side. Last weekend, self-help author, motivational speaker and 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson announced she was running for president again.
President Biden hasn’t announced his bid to seek reelection yet, but it will likely come soon. That means Williamson will attempt to defeat a sitting president for renomination, which has never happened in the modern primary era.
But the modern primary era has few examples of competitive primaries against sitting presidents, and it’s unwise to forge iron laws of politics (i.e., “sitting presidents are invincible in primaries”) from such a small sample size. And conditions may be ripe for a serious primary challenge against Biden, though it probably won’t be Williamson (more on that in a minute).
Marianne Williamson is running for president. Does she have a shot against Joe Biden?
Polling suggests that Democrats aren’t thrilled with the idea of Biden as their nominee again. Only 31 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they want the party to renominate Biden, while 58 percent said they’d prefer someone else, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from Jan. 27-Feb. 1. That lack of enthusiasm is unusual. According to historical CNN polling, majorities of Democrats wanted to renominate Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012, and a majority of Republicans wanted to renominate Trump in 2020.
Early polling of the Democratic primary contest also shows Biden getting nowhere close to majority support. For example, he received support from just 36 percent of Democratic registered voters in a Feb. 15-16 national poll from Harris/the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies, while the rest of the poll’s respondents opted for the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But there’s an old saying in politics: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. Harris, Clinton and Sanders are extremely unlikely to challenge Biden, as is anyone with significant stature in the party. So, for now, it’s just Williamson — and she doesn’t fit the profile of someone who could give Biden a real run for his money.
What are Democrats looking for in a Biden alternative? First, they’re not looking for someone more progressive than him. Only 21 percent of Democratic registered voters agree with the idea that Biden is too conservative, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll from Feb. 10-12. Instead, they are looking for someone more electable. According to an SSRS/CNN poll from last year, a plurality of Democratic-aligned voters who wanted to replace him on the ticket said it was because they were afraid he would lose in the general election. In addition, follow-up interviews with respondents from multiple recent polls have found that many Democrats think the 80-year-old Biden is too old.
Williamson’s candidacy doesn’t address any of these concerns. First, while Williamson isn’t quite as old as Biden, she is 70. If she wins in 2024, she would be the second-oldest newly elected president in U.S. history. Second, Williamson is challenging Biden from his left, arguing that he needs to pursue progressive policies more boldly. And finally, few Democrats are likely to call Williamson an electoral juggernaut. She has never held elected office; only one person in U.S. history has been elected president without political or military experience. She has also lost her two previous bids for office, her 2020 presidential campaign and a 2014 run for Congress. Her unconventional philosophy could hurt her as well: Her 2020 campaign was tinged with an alt-spiritualism that went beyond your average progressive politics. Her suggestion that “the power of the mind” changed the course of a hurricane earned her a fair amount of ridicule, and her past skepticism of vaccinations could hit differently in the era of COVID-19. And while many Americans share Williamson’s “spiritual but not religious” identity, those Americans tend to be highly educated — and highly educated voters tend to be skeptical of nonconformist views like Williamson’s.
It was unsurprising, then, that the more Democrats got to know Williamson throughout the 2020 campaign, the less they liked her. In an average of polls conducted in May 2019, 13 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Williamson, and 10 percent had an unfavorable one. But then, in an average of polls conducted Aug. 1-25, 2019, 22 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion, and 26 percent had an unfavorable view. So far this year, there haven’t been any polls conducted of Williamson’s favorability, but it’s hard to think of a reason why Democrats’ opinions of her would have improved over the past four years.
During the 2020 campaign, my colleague Geoffrey Skelley devised a five-point scale to measure the seriousness of then-President Trump’s primary challengers. At this point in the 2024 campaign, it seems likely that Williamson will fall somewhere between a Level 1 and Level 2 challenge to Biden — if she even makes it to primary season. In 2020, a lack of campaign funds forced her to drop out before any voting took place.
She’s more prominent than your average Level 1 challenger, whom Skelley described as “perennial or no-name candidates who make the ballot in a handful of states and win just a sliver of the national primary vote.” But she may struggle to achieve the success of Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican primary, the poster child for Level 2: “This candidate could build a national political organization and win a not-insignificant chunk of the primary vote, or at least enough to force a conversation about the direction the party is headed.”
In other words, she’s unlikely to give Biden a serious scare. While she could conceivably become the left’s protest candidate to Biden (especially if she is the only prominent progressive to run), that isn’t a realistic path to the nomination (just ask “President Sanders”). She is also not positioned to exploit Biden’s more glaring weaknesses, like age and electability. So while there may be an appetite for a serious primary challenge to Biden, Williamson ain’t it.