The Outside-the-Box Campaign
by
Marianne Williamson at Unity of Washington church (YouTube screenshot)

Marianne Williamson doesn’t talk like a politician. As she spoke to a crowd of about 300 people at a Unitarian church in Washington, D.C., last week, she invoked scripture to convey her ideas of mercy and justice, “heart and spirit.” Even beyond the words she spoke, however, the way she spoke them was not what one would expect from an experienced politician. Rather than delivering her words at a carefully cadenced pace, the way most candidates do, Williamson spoke so rapidly that she sometimes failed to pause when the audience interrupted her with applause. An author of several bestselling books, Williamson spoke without notes or teleprompter for nearly an hour at the church on R Street in Northwest Washington and then took questions from the crowd for nearly another hour. She received more than one standing ovation.

Williamson is running for president, and she has already qualified for the first two rounds of televised debates beginning in June, according to the guidelines established by the Democratic National Committee. In early May, she cleared the first threshold — announcing that her campaign had gotten contributions from 65,000 unique donors — and last week, she crossed the second threshold, getting at least 1% in three national polls. According to an analysis by Politico, this makes Williamson one of 13 candidates who have met both of the DNC debate criteria. That puts her ahead of several experienced politicians, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in the squeeze to qualify as one of the 20 candidates on the debate stage in Miami. Because there are 23 announced Democratic candidates, Williamson is actually near the middle of the pack, and with only two candidates (former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) now registering in double digits in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, she’s not really far away from being considered a serious contender. That explains why reporters from ABC, CBS, the Washington Post, Time magazine and BuzzFeed were in attendance when Williamson spoke in D.C. last week. Given the format announced for the Democrat debates, it’s entirely possible that Williamson could be onstage right next to Biden, Sanders, or one of the other big-name contenders when NBC broadcasts the first debates June 26-27. With such an opportunity to elevate her profile, there is a chance that Williamson could break through and have a significant impact on the 2020 campaign.

What is it that Williamson brings to the task? As she told the crowd at Unity Church, “I know my candidacy is outside the box.” However, considering that the Republican in the White House was also an outside-the-box candidate, why shouldn’t Democrat primary voters be willing to give her a chance? And as the size of the audience that greeted her in Washington last week suggested, many are at least curious about the woman who has often been called Oprah Winfrey’s “spiritual guru.” With five New York Times bestselling books to her credit, Williamson has a pre-existing nationwide base of potential supporters, and her campaign fundraising during the first quarter of this year exceeded that of former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, considered by many a rising star in Democrat ranks.

She is definitely different. How many Democrats quote the Bible in their speeches? Yet there she was, quoting Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, the people perish”) in her rapid-fire speech last week, and telling the crowd that “God calls nations to be good.” Williamson gave a ringing endorsement to reparations for slavery, which was met with applause, and also called for using anti-trust laws to restrain the “gigantic power” of tech companies like Google. Her manner of delivery is not the practiced style of a politician, but it conveys a sense of moral urgency — at times more of a sermon than a stump speech. There is no telling how this might play to a national TV audience, however, and it has been estimated that each candidate in the early Democrat debates might get only seven minutes of airtime. After that, the DNC recently announced, it will raise the threshold for the third round of debates scheduled for September. Then, candidates will need 130,000 unique donors and at least 2% in the national polls to qualify.

To get an idea of how far Marianne Williamson has come in the past few weeks, consider this: When I traveled to South Carolina to cover her campaign in March, I was the only reporter in attendance when she spoke from the pulpit of an AME church. The national media were almost completely ignoring her campaign then, but this week she appeared on CNN’s morning program where host Alisyn Camerota remarked that Williamson had “leapfrogged established governors and mayors” in the 2020 race. The candidate responded by saying that voters she’s talked to in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire don’t care whether she’s held public office, but rather about her ideas and her “vision of this country.” Later in the week on CNN, Chris Cillizza gave Williamson a “B” grade on his 2020 candidate report card, while delivering a “D” to former Texas Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke. O’Rourke, who rolled out his campaign on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, has faded badly in the past two months, the latest Quinnipiac poll showing him at just 2%. So while the one-time media darling O’Rourke is now beginning to emit what Cillizza called a “stench” of failure, the once-ignored Williamson is moving up. And several better-known candidates, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, are struggling. The latest Monmouth poll, for example, showed Williamson tied at 1% with Booker and de Blasio, while Hickenlooper had less than 1% and five other candidates, including California Rep. Eric Swalwell, registering zero support.

Most of the media attention is now on front-runner Biden, but what will happen after the televised debates in June and July? What happens if Biden stumbles, or if one of the other top-tier candidates goes into an O’Rourke-style tailspin? How long will the various governors, senators, congressmen and mayors be able to stay in the Democratic race if their single-digit poll numbers don’t improve? The outside-the-box candidacy of Williamson could survive longer, simply because she’s got nowhere to go but up. All she’s got to do is keep adding campaign donors and get to 2% in the polls to make it to the September debates, by which time some of her better-known rivals may have already called it quits.

As perhaps the longest long-shot in the Democrat field, Williamson remains upbeat. “There are more lovers than haters in America,” she told the crowd last week in D.C., and her campaign is finding ways to capitalize on that message, offering donors a “U.S. Department of Peace” sticker. That’s one of her outside-the-box ideas, and in the crowded race for the 2020 Democrat nomination, it might be enough to make Marianne Williamson a more formidable contender than many of the candidates inside the box.

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