Why Marianne Williamson’s Unconventional Presidential Bid Didn’t Catch On

Marianne Williamson’s run is over. On Friday — just over a week after laying off her entire campaign staff — the self-help author and motivational speaker announced she was dropping out of the presidential race.

We can’t say this result was a shock. Williamson started her campaign with both an unconventional résumé for a would-be president and an unconventional message of healing the country’s divisions with spiritualism and love. Her large following (her books have sold more than 3 million copies, and she is close with several celebrities) was enough to separate her from a pack of literally hundreds of other non-politicians waging quixotic presidential campaigns, as she and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang became the only two non-elected-officials to qualify for the first two debates.

But those debates required a polling threshold of only 1 percent and a donor threshold of only 65,000 unique contributors — relatively achievable goals. As the thresholds increased, Williamson was unable to keep pace and didn’t appear in any more debates. She has languished with a FiveThirtyEight national polling average of less than 1 percent all cycle long, and only one debate-qualifying pollster (Monmouth University) ever found her above 1 percent.

Why Marianne Williamson’s Unconventional Presidential Bid Didn’t Catch On 1

Maybe one reason why Williamson didn’t fare better in the polls is that the more voters got to know her, the less they liked her. According to an average of polls conducted in May, Democrats were not very familiar with Williamson; 13 percent of them had a favorable impression of her, 10 percent had an unfavorable one and the remainder didn’t have an opinion. And even though Williamson’s favorable rating increased by 9 points after the first two debates (according to an average of polls conducted Aug. 1-25), her unfavorable rating increased more — by 16 points. This made her one of the few Democratic candidates who was more unpopular than popular among members of her own party — generally speaking, not a good place to be.

Williamson may have hoped that her New Age rhetoric (“I’m going to harness love for political purposes”) would help her appeal to the spiritual side of the Democratic Party, but it looks like it just turned voters off. As my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote in September, although “spiritual but not religious” people make up around one-third of the Democratic Party, they are not a cohesive group, do not vote as a monolith and tend to prioritize shared values and policy positions over a shared spiritual identity. They also tend to be more highly educated than the broader public, which might disabuse them of a candidate who has heterodox views on vaccines and antidepressants or who ridiculed the idea that “wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country.” Ultimately, it was harder than Williamson probably expected to get, as she once quipped, “everyone who has a yoga mat” to vote for her.

But there is a long tradition of quirky presidential candidates staying in the race throughout the primaries and keeping the flame of their contrarian gospel alive — think former Rep. Dennis Kucinich in 20041 or former Rep. Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Why couldn’t Williamson pick up their mantle and at least keep running as a protest candidate? In a word, money. From November 2018 through September 2019, she raised just $6.1 million and spent $5.4 million, for a pretty high burn rate of 88 percent. (Every non-self-funding candidate with a burn rate above 80 percent has now dropped out.) It was this lack of cash that forced Williamson to lay off her staff — which reportedly once numbered around 45 — on Jan. 2. From there, the writing was on the wall.