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How Seriously Should We Take Marianne Williamson And Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): The race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination is heating up, with four more candidates throwing their hats in the ring in just the past two and a half weeks. But what, you might ask, about the Democrats? It’s true that President Biden is running for reelection, but he’s not alone in the Democratic primary — self-help author and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson is running again, as is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading vaccine skeptic and a member of one of the country’s best-known political families.

And while Williamson and Kennedy are both serious long shots, they have their supporters — or at least, it looks that way in the polls. For example, a CNN/SSRS poll conducted May 17-20 found that 60 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters support Biden, while 20 percent support Kennedy and 8 percent support Williamson, and an additional 8 percent say they’d support “someone else.” The same poll found that 64 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters would at least consider backing Kennedy, and 53 percent would at least consider backing Williamson.

But nobody who covers elections (including us) seems to be taking Williamson and Kennedy particularly seriously. So I come to the FiveThirtyEight brain trust with two questions today:

  • There’s plainly some kind of appetite for a non-Biden candidate on the Democratic side — so why are oddball candidates like Williamson and Kennedy the only ones who have jumped in?
  • Are we underestimating Williamson and Kennedy’s ability to make Biden’s life difficult as we get closer to the Democratic primaries?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Interesting, Amelia, I’m not sure I agree with your premise there! I think a lot of people are taking Williamson and Kennedy more seriously than I’d like them to.

ameliatd: Ooh, we’re bickering already! I love it. Please say more …

nrakich: Basically, they’re being covered like serious candidates. Reporters are going to their rallies and writing exposés on them. Even if they say they are extreme long-shot candidates, they aren’t treating them that way. Actions speak louder than words.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics reporter): I wasn’t thinking that people are taking these two candidates seriously, Nathaniel, but I think you’re onto something. I’ve been reading more about Williamson than I did in 2020 when she had, if anything, more of a shot. Politico published a very intriguing and well-written 1,300-word profile of her last month. They questioned the campaign’s legitimacy, but that’s a lot of ink to spill for somebody who doesn’t have a chance.

ameliatd: Oh, Williamson got a lot of coverage in 2020 though. There was a whole New York Times Magazine profile of her!

kaleigh: Yeah, but there were 34 (I exaggerate only mildly) other candidates, many of whom were also getting profiles. Beto O’Rourke was on the cover of Vanity Fair!

nrakich: Williamson was also more of a novelty in 2020, running for the first time.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I remember Williamson getting quite a bit of press because of her built-in fan base from her books. Also, there was some sense that anything could happen because of 2016. After Trump won, I think political reporters have been less inclined to automatically discount anyone.

kaleigh: By contrast, I don’t recall any deep profiles on Bill Weld or Mark Sanford during the 2020 Republican primary.

nrakich: Oh man, I forgot that Sanford even ran in 2020

kaleigh: See?!

ameliatd: So it sounds like you’re saying the presence of an incumbent is important here? Because obviously that is the big difference from 2020 — Biden was not running for reelection.

kaleigh: Right. Also-rans who try to challenge a sitting president in the primary are nothing new, but they’re typically given very little attention from the public and the press.

nrakich: Yeah. The 2020 Democratic primary was a wide-open field; I think it’s quite understandable that the media would cover all the candidates a little bit as voters were getting to know them. But the 2024 Democratic primary isn’t even a race, and pretending that it is does a disservice to readers.

Monica Potts: Also, Nathaniel has written about this, but since the 2020 cycle, Democrats have cared about electability quite a lot. Williamson has some unorthodox ideas and may be too progressive even for mainstream Democrats, so that could explain why even Democrats unhappy with Biden might not want to take a risk on a candidate like her.  

nrakich: Yeah, the people who want to replace Biden on the Democratic ticket aren’t looking for someone more progressive; according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll from February, only 21 percent of Democratic registered voters agreed with the idea that Biden is too conservative. They are looking for someone (a) more electable and (b) younger. Williamson has never won an election in her career, and she is also not that much younger than Biden. At 70, she would be the second-oldest president ever elected, after Scranton Joe.

ameliatd: OK, but there is evidence that Democrats are not especially enthused about the idea of a second Biden term. And some Democrats are saying in polls that they are supporting Williamson and Kennedy. Tell me how you interpret those polls — what does 20 percent support for Kennedy (to go back to that CNN/SSRS poll) tell us about the Democratic primary? 

kaleigh: I’ve seen some mentions of this, but while a lot of Democrats weren’t super enthused about a Biden run before he announced, they ultimately said they would support him. In an April poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (from before Biden officially announced his reelection campaign), only 47 percent of Democrats said they wanted him to run. But 78 percent said they approved of the job he was doing as president, and 81 percent said they would probably or definitely support him if he became the nominee. And in the most recent approval ratings from Reuters/Ipsos, the president had a 79 percent approval rating among Democrats. That’s not as high as Trump was polling among Republicans in May of 2019, but it’s still a healthy approval rating for an incumbent jumping into the race. All this to say: Democrats like Biden, so there’s not as much space for an outsider to break through.

Monica Potts: I agree with Kaleigh. I think it’s a sign of something we already know: Most Americans didn’t think Biden should run again, so Kennedy and to some extent Williamson are picking up displeasure with Biden as the party front-runner. But it’s not going to be enough to unseat him. Given the choice between Biden and either of them, Democrats will likely choose Biden

nrakich: Yes, exactly. And as for why Kennedy himself is apparently doing so well — it’s an illusion based on his last name. CNN/SSRS asked Democrats who said they would consider supporting Kennedy why they might do so, and a plurality (20 percent) said the Kennedy name and his family connections. An additional 10 percent said it was just because they were open-minded and would consider any candidate. Only 12 percent specifically pointed to his views and policies. 

To quote one respondent of the poll, “I liked his dad (RFK) and his uncle (JFK) a lot. I would hope he has a similar mindset.” But the thing is, he doesn’t. He is one of the most prominent vaccine skeptics in America. A lot of Democrats probably don’t know that, and they may reconsider their support once they learn. According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of Democrats say that healthy children should be required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella to attend public school. 

Monica Potts: It’s not just that he’s a vaccine skeptic: Kennedy has a number of ideas that are far out of the Democratic mainstream. He said he wants to seal the border with Mexico, is sympathetic to Russia in the war with Ukraine, has blamed mass shootings on drugs like Prozac and said COVID-19 was a bioweapons problem, according to reporting from The New York Times. It’s not clear there’s a lot of tolerance for those kinds of theories in the Democratic primary electorate. Williamson has also expressed vaccine skepticism and has said she wanted to bring love into politics. 

kaleigh: Maybe Kennedy supporters are getting delusions of grandeur because one of the last times in recent memory when a candidate gave a sitting president a run for his money in the primary was Ted Kennedy when he challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980?

ameliatd: So, it sounds like the consensus is that we should be taking Williamson and Kennedy less seriously, not more. (No more gauzy profiles, please!) But if some Democrats are genuinely displeased with Biden, why didn’t a Democrat with a better chance of unseating him take the plunge? And what kind of candidate do you think would have had a better shot?

nrakich: I just think the political norms against primarying a president of your own party are very strong. No incumbent president has ever failed to be renominated in the primary era; a lot of people (justifiably) view it as career suicide.

I remember in 2022, in the Democratic primary for New York’s 12th Congressional District, then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney suggested that maybe Biden shouldn’t run for reelection. It became such a big controversy that she had to apologize for it! That’s a party whose leadership is solidly behind Biden (even if not every voter is).

kaleigh: It’s why serious candidates don’t typically bother. There were some who questioned whether Bernie Sanders would run again. But, predictably, he backed Biden the moment Biden announced his campaign. 

It’s just a fantasy for Democrats who wish Biden hadn’t won the nomination in the first place.

Monica Potts: Right. Members of the party don’t want to be seen as hurting their own chances in the general election.

nrakich: As for what kind of candidate would have a better shot, I think someone with similar views to Biden, but someone who is younger and seen as capable of winning a general election, as mentioned earlier. Someone like Sen. Raphael Warnock would give him a scare, I think: Warnock has a national profile from winning two hotly contested runoff elections in Georgia, and he’s only 53 years old. But again, he would never take the plunge.

kaleigh: And running a campaign for president is tough work … and expensive! Serious contenders with aspirations for the job are going to save their energy and coins for a year when it’s an open primary and they have a better shot at the nomination. There’s a lot of institutional momentum in the way for challenging an incumbent (something Williamson has acknowledged and complained about). There won’t be a Democratic primary debate (this is typical), for example.

ameliatd: Right, the Democrats’ institutional support for Biden does seem very normal. This might be a bit of a weird question, but … is that norm healthy for democracy? Should incumbents face primary challengers more routinely?

kaleigh: But he is facing a primary challenger! Two of them, and voters are able to cast a ballot for them if they so choose. To me, this is just about efficiency. In the land of perpetual elections, anything that simplifies the process is welcome, in my opinion.

Monica Potts: It seems like most Americans don’t want Biden or Trump to run, and as of right now they’re both the most likely candidates for their parties, which means we could see a 2020 rematch. I think you could argue that’s not a healthy state for democracy. But if that happens, the Republicans will be equally to blame.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Monica Potts is a senior politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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