2020 Elections

Here's what 2020 long-shot Marianne Williamson's candidacy says about the state of American politics in the age of Trump

Key Points
  • Six women are running for president. Five of them are career politicians and policy wonks, including Elizabeth Warren. Then there's Oprah-approved self-help guru Marianne Williamson.
  • The debate will be a political coming-out party for the candidate, whose only prior brush with the electoral process was during a 2014 California House primary race that she lost.
  • A former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton says Williamson's elevation to the debate stage "says more about the state of American politics than it does about her candidacy" in the age of Donald Trump.
Democratic presidential candidate and self-help author Marianne Williamson speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner on June 9, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Six Democratic women are running for president, five of them are career politicians, including four senators and a congresswoman.

And then there's Marianne Williamson.

The 66-year-old self-help guru doesn't have policy chops of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She doesn't share the prosecutorial skills of Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. She doesn't enjoy the funding network of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. And she hasn't served in the military like Iraq veteran and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

But the best-selling author and motivational speaker has clinched one of 20 coveted spots at the upcoming debates by getting to 1% in at least three national polls and receiving 65,000 unique donations — the criteria set by the Democratic National Committee.

She landed that spot well ahead of Gillibrand, who came dangerously close to missing the cut. Three other politicians — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam — did not make the cut.

Williamson, in a recent interview, chalked up her unexpected success to a new "openness to ideas" among voters.

Some of her ideas can be unconventional. The Texas native wants to bring a "moral and spiritual awakening" to American politics. She says the country's political system has lost its heart and needs to find it. She wants to create a Department of Peace.

"Millions of Americans feel the country has swerved from its moral center," she said, citing the separation of children from parents at the southern border. "That's a spiritual malfunction, a transgression against the values we hold dear."

Though her comments are aimed at the Trump administration's policies, she prefers not to put too much focus on the man she wants to face in November 2020.

"I don't feel the American people need me to tell them who Donald Trump is or what he stands for," she said. "My job is to present an alternative that is a far more compelling and genuinely American way of looking at our country and the world."

Debate stacked with front-runners

The debate will be a political coming out party for the candidate who has little experience in the arena beyond a 2014 California U.S. House primary race that she lost. Though she has written 14 books and has 2.6 million Twitter followers, an April poll conducted by Change Research noted that 66% of likely Democratic voters had never heard of her.

On Thursday, she'll appear on a stage packed with 2020 front-runners including Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and rising star Pete Buttigieg.

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Doug Sosnik, a former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, said Williamson's elevation to the debate stage "says more about the state of American politics than it does about her candidacy." In the age of Trump, he suggested, everyone seems to think they deserve a shot at running the country.

But Sosnik warned, "This is a long haul. You've got to be able to stand out over time and take the scrutiny."

Appearing on Night 2 with the more star-studded group of candidates could be a double-edged sword for Williamson, who reached the pinnacle of her celebrity in the 1990s when Oprah Winfrey took her under her wing. More viewers may tune in, but she's likely to get less speaking time.

"Williamson will get a couple of minutes to make her case to voters," said Chris Lu, a former Obama White House Cabinet secretary and DNC superdelegate. "If she can use it to push forward a specific policy agenda that would be an accomplishment."

She is confident she can hold her own. "I'm going to speak my truth, and they're going to speak theirs," Williamson said.

She's skilled at staying on message. At a recent MSNBC event her voice rang out as if she was preaching a Sunday sermon as she answered questions about poverty and racial injustice. She made the case for reparations for African Americans who are descendants of slaves, a hot topic on the campaign trail and one she's been a proponent of for years.

Like other progressive Democrats, she's for a Green New Deal to fight climate change and supports "Medicare for All." She wants to tax the wealthy to pay for such programs. She also backs abortion rights and gun control. She's for "capitalism with a conscience."

Standing apart

But she stands apart when she talks about bringing spirituality into politics.

"My campaign is about an integrative approach to politics that factors in psychological and emotional issues," she said.

Williamson, who is Jewish, said people are ready for that conversation.

She moved from New York to Iowa several months ago so she could be central to early voting states like New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. She has been hitting the road to spread her message.

It's resonating, according to Paula Roby, a 45-year-old attorney, Cedar Rapids native, campaign volunteer and long-time fan. "I was looking for an antidote to all of the hate and fear and lies coming from Washington right now," she said. "Her ideas are exactly what I want to see in a candidate."

She said Williamson may not have the experience of more seasoned candidates, but she's not a novice. Many of her positions are outlined in a book she wrote two decades ago, "Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming our Voices as Spiritual Citizens."

Despite her distinctive voice, Williamson is clearly an underdog. She raised just $1.5 million in the first quarter, according to a Federal Elections Commission filing, far below leading Democrats. She does not plan to kick in her own money. A personal finance disclosure from 2013 shows she had assets of just under $1 million to $4.5 million, not including private residences. She said she would have more if "I had been smarter in the 1990s" and made better investments.

Vaccine controversy

Williamson stepped on a landmine Wednesday over whether vaccines should be mandated in the face of a growing nationwide measles epidemic. She said the idea was "draconian" and "Orwellian," raising concern she is sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement. She later walked back those comments but maintained that "public safety must be carefully balanced with the right of individuals to make their own decisions." That position did not go over well with hosts of "The View," who grilled her on the subject when she joined them on Thursday.

And though she got that coveted debate spot, she's still just at 1% or less in recent polls, including in Iowa, her adopted home state. She's depending on the debate to raise awareness that will spur more campaign donations that will enable her to stay in the race.

Even so, one thing you probably won't see Williamson doing is attacking her rivals on the debate stage.

When asked if she was disappointed that two white men in their 70s, Biden and Sanders, were leading the field despite the presence of six women, she took umbrage — at the question.

"I don't want to participate in ageism or prejudice of any kind," she said. "As a woman, I know what it feels like when people automatically dismiss you for your sex. I don't want to do to a man what men have done to me. I think in the final analysis, what matters most is not their age or sex, but their consciousness, their ideas, their plans, their courage and their commitment."