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How Marianne Williamson Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

There’s no question that Marianne Williamson is an atypical political candidate. As a motivational speaker and self-help author who hasn’t held political office before, she certainly has a nontraditional background. That’s one reason that she didn’t qualify as a “major” candidate by FiveThirtyEight’s standards1 until last week, even though she first announced she was forming an exploratory committee last November and formally kicked off her campaign on Jan. 28. But communications director Patricia Ewing told FiveThirtyEight that the campaign sees the unusual nature of Williamson’s candidacy as a strength. “We’re different. We know that and we embrace that.”

Indeed, Williamson’s unconventional career has already given her a substantial following once, in the 1980s and ’90s. After dropping out of college in California, living in a commune in New Mexico, and singing at a cabaret in New York, Williamson found purpose when she began reading the New Age spiritual guidebook “A Course in Miracles.” She began to lecture on the book’s teachings in Los Angeles in 1983 and soon attracted a list of wealthy and influential friends and admirers, including Oprah Winfrey, Cher, Laura Dern and Elizabeth Taylor, whose final marriage she officiated. Williamson also founded the charities Project Angel Food and the Centers for Living to care for people with HIV, earning her a devoted following in the LGBT community. Her teachings reached a national audience through multiple appearances on Winfrey’s TV show, and seven of her 13 books made the New York Times best-seller list.

But although Williamson has never held elected office, she’s no stranger to left-wing activism. In 2004, she founded an organization that advocates for the U.S. government to establish a Department of Peace (that goal is also one of the policy planks in her 2020 platform); in the 2010s, she conducted a series of seminars meant to inspire more women to become politically engaged. And in 2014, she ran for California’s 33rd Congressional District as an independent, a campaign that hinted at her ability to leverage her celebrity connections: Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian attended fundraisers for her, and Alanis Morissette even wrote her campaign song. Although she finished fourth in the all-party primary, she raised an impressive $2.4 million, hired high-powered campaign staff and snagged the endorsements of politicos like former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. In the 2016 Democratic primary, she was an early supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

From ABC News:

As for Williamson’s 2020 operation, she has a campaign staff of 20 — “and growing,” her communications director said — including field directors in all four early primary states. She has already held 12 events in Iowa, and Ewing told FiveThirtyEight that Williamson has gone so far as to move there. The candidate has also held 22 events in New Hampshire, making her one of the state’s most frequent political tourists. An enthusiastic crowd of 2,000 supporters was on hand for her campaign announcement speech in California in January; watching the video of the speech leaves one with the impression that Williamson was giving self-help advice to the entire country — but also that, a rhetorician by trade, she is undeniably charismatic. She is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, including advocating for reparations for slavery, a new hot topic in Democratic primaries but one that Williamson first advocated for 20 years ago in her book “Healing the Soul of America,” according to Ewing. Williamson’s policy planks also include ideas that have yet to catch on with the rest of the field, like creating a Cabinet-level Department of Children and Youth, which the campaign believes will appeal to parents.

But so far, her efforts haven’t yet translated into much success. Despite her Hollywood connections, she managed to raise just $1.5 million as of the end of the first quarter — not chump change, but it does put her toward the bottom of the list of serious contenders. Nor has she yet managed to clear the 65,000-donor threshold that would qualify her to participate in the first two Democratic primary debates, although according to her campaign website, she’s about 90 percent of the way there.2

And although her books have sold 3 million copies, her name recognition is among the lowest in the field. In a national poll conducted by Change Research in mid-April, 66 percent of likely Democratic voters had never heard of her; the same was true of 53 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in an early-April Monmouth poll of Iowa. Candidates with low name recognition can still have a shot at the nomination if they’re backed by a decent percentage of the people who have heard of them, but Williamson gets almost no support in horse-race surveys: She has gotten 0 percent support in 27 of the 35 polls in our database that have asked about her. And she is unlikely to become better known as long as cable news networks and newspapers continue to cover her far less often than the candidates with more traditional credentials.

Lack of experience in elected office is probably the biggest obstacle to Williamson’s campaign. In our analysis of 2018 primaries for Senate, House and governor, we found that candidates who had previously held elected office got significantly more votes in Democratic primaries — in fact, having held office gave candidates the biggest boost in vote share of any factor we looked at. And in all of U.S. history, only two major-party presidential nominees have had no political or military experience before winning their party’s primaries (although one of them was both very recent and very successful: President Trump3). But Trump’s secret to winning the GOP nomination in 2016 despite an apolitical background was the volume of free media coverage he received; it’s likely that Williamson will have a hard time pulling off a Trump-esque upset unless the chattering classes start chattering more about her campaign.

Dhrumil Mehta and Derek Shan contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. She has now met six of our 10 criteria: She is officially running, she is running to win, she has at least three full-time staffers, she is routinely campaigning outside her home state, she is included in most polls and she is searched for on Google more than half as much as the median debate-qualified candidate.

  2. As of April 30.

  3. The other was Wendell Willkie.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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