“Immediately, I thought, ‘She'll never win. Forget it.’ Then I realized, ‘If I deny her, it's like I'm denying myself. Like I don't count," one supporter says.

By Melissa Batchelor Warnke
Jul 30, 2019 @ 5:00 pm
ROZETTE RAGO/The New York Times/Redux

You’ve heard things about Marianne Williamson. Maybe you saw the first debate, where she didn’t speak for the first nearly 30 minutes, called the Prime Minister of New Zealand “girlfriend,” and became the night’s most Googled candidate. Maybe you’ve read one of the 13 books that secured Williamson a national audience. (Four of which were #1 New York Times Best Sellers.) Maybe you think she’s on to something. Maybe you believe she apparated from a kinder planet and will momentarily dematerialize from this one in a burst of sprinkles. Maybe you imagine that the voters supporting Marianne are uniformly wealthy, white yoga ladies from California, and they refer to the candidate by her first name because she’s familiar to them. Maybe you do because you can’t imagine a spiritual advisor and activist becoming president, because she has never had a Senator, Governor, or Representative marker in front of her name, or because you don’t take her seriously.

Is Marianne Williamson serious? Are her supporters? First, you have to figure out who they even are, which is tough this early in a presidential campaign. There’s polling data, which is reliably unreliable (remember 2016?); looking at rally crowds (which tells you who was able to attend more than who will eventually vote); and social media. The latter is where many of Williamson’s supporters are currently organizing, which shouldn’t be taken as an indication that they’re half-in; many say they’ll be ready to go door-to-door and stick signs on their lawns, when those signs are printed.

As for Williamson’s polling, well, it’s not fabulous. She tends to register somewhere between zero and 1%. Former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the race; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have been polling around 15%. Public attention has found the candidate nonetheless — Oprah, who has known Williamson for more than 25 years, adores her; RuPaul called her “baby”; Kim Kardashian went to a Williamson lecture and found it “very inspiring!” — and some might call the subject of that kind of attention heavy on flash, light on substance. But her supporters, the ones waiting for the lawn signs, connect to her messages about children, climate change, a love ethos, and waging peace; some lightheartedly refer to themselves as the #OrbGang.

An unserious-sounding nickname, but Williamson’s supporters are seriously showing up for their candidate. She qualified for both debates easily. True to her words on getting money out of politics, Williamson hasn’t buffered her campaign with a dollar of her own or carryover campaign cash. Her presidential run has largely been powered by donations under $200. Even the most fervent of her grassroots supporters have sprouted of their own volition; they say what they most want is for her to be heard.

Williamson has long been based in L.A. County, which is as good a place as any to start looking for the women who want her to be president. Even Angelenos weren’t uniformly familiar with the candidate before her run. Kimberly Dullaghan first heard of Williamson while listening to KPFK 90.7 FM in her car a couple of months ago. “Marianne was being interviewed; she was talking about society and what we need to do to correct a lot of the wrongs that are apparent. I was just intrigued and enthralled. I was in the parking lot where I was going, and I didn't get out of the car because I wanted to hear what she had to say,” Dullaghan, a 44-year-old artist who works in the toy industry, said. “And then she said she was running for president, and I almost fell over.” 

Dullaghan is politically savvy; she listens to NPR while she works; she phone-banked for Bernie Sanders in 2016. But when she heard Williamson speak, she felt a new fire. Dullaghan started researching her positions. Williamson’s big ideas on criminal justice reform and getting money out of politics connected. “A lot of people are trying to say that Marianne lacks the political experience, but she's shown that she's a humanitarian. She has organized Project Angel Food, which is still going. She's a businesswoman with a conscience. She's basically the antithesis of Trump,” Dullaghan says. She’s been spending her free time organizing for Williamson ever since.

“I got on Twitter, and I have not been on Twitter in years,” Dullaghan says. “I want to be that force that she needs to gain visibility and move her to the next level of candidacy. She's activated me into being an activist, basically.” And many others. Williamson has accrued 440,000 Instagram followers and 2.7 million Twitter followers, chump change compared to the race’s early leaders (Warren has 1.7 and 2.9 million, respectively), but far ahead of those she’s polling alongside (Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, for instance, has 6,000 and 28,000.)

Mary Hollywood (yes, she lives in Los Angeles, and that’s her real name), a 34-year-old teacher, found the candidate a different way. She vaguely remembered that Alanis Morissette had written a song inspired by Williamson’s 2014 Congressional campaign; Hollywood is a big Morissette fan. So she started looking into Williamson’s campaign about a month before the first debate. “Once I started listening to what she was saying, I was like, ‘Oh, my god. This is exactly what my friends and I talk about,’” Hollywood says. “Immediately, I thought, ‘She'll never win. Forget it.’ Then I realized, ‘If I deny her, it's like I'm denying myself. Like I don't count. I don't have a voice.’” She wasn’t sure if Williamson could make it happen, though. Then she went to see her speak at the Saban Theater, not far from where she lives. That event moved her deeply.

Williamson’s events tend to be intimate, though they are many. In July alone, she spoke in Nevada, New Hampshire, Maine, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Iowa, and Colorado — 26 events encompassing dinners, breakfasts, house parties, and keynotes. (Kirsten Gillibrand held 12 events in six states during the same time period.) Next week, Williamson has a town hall at a yoga and meditation center and a meet-and-greet at a theater in Las Vegas. In the past, she’s livestreamed her lectures to reach even more people.

“When you see how she connects to [people at her events], she's so honest and authentic, like she's not pandering to anyone,” Hollywood says. “She's been working with people that have been marginalized her whole life. I think that this is what's driving her. It's like she sees the pain in everyone and she wants to fix it, if she can. She wants to help. And I feel the same way.”

For Hollywood, Williamson’s message was personal. “I was raised by a single mom, and I know how hard that was,” she says. (Williamson raised her daughter, who is now 29, on her own.) Hollywood, who is Brazillian-American, says she has been personally affected by Trump's xenophobic rhetoric and policies. Williamson’s emphasis on love as both a spiritual and political force is meaningful to her, and she takes umbrage at what she sees as mischaracterizations of her candidate’s message. “The biggest one right now is that she is anti-science, anti-vaccines. People are taking this completely out of context,” she says. (After Williamson compared vaccine mandates to abortion restrictions, she apologized, saying she had intended to critique drugs rushed to market by Big Pharma.)

“I respect the other candidates. I do. But I feel like the reason why Trump won is because people don't trust politicians anymore. And I feel that that hasn't changed. We don't have to reach out to the MAGAs; they're not going to change their minds. But we need to get the people that didn't vote last election. And I'll be honest, I didn't,” she says. “I'm the type of person who has to vote with my conscience. I feel like this time around, things really have to be different. She's an outsider that has that force, that vision, that inspiration, that will move people to get out of their homes and fight.”

Like Dullaghan, Hollywood wasn’t big into Twitter. “I just started this month,” she says. “That's how passionate I feel. Like I have to get through, because I feel like she's being marginalized.” Hollywood is on there day and night; five Marianne tweets yesterday — and as to the replies and retweets? The limit simply does not exist.

Alanis Morisette wasn’t at the celeb-heavy L.A. fundraiser a couple weeks ago that spawned gobs of tweets and some spirited memes. But musician Dave Navarro, memorably, was in attendance, as were Alyssa Milano, Marcia Cross, and Amber Valetta. Over the years, Williamson has been connected to dozens of celebrities, though few have formally endorsed her presidential run (or anyone’s) just yet. She and Laura Dern shared an apartment when Williamson was in her early-30s and Dern was 17. (Dern, who also attended that L.A. fundraiser, has been a loyal supporter.) Jeff Goldblum, who dated Dern in the ‘90s, told Interview magazine, “Some of what she said, even in that first debate that had to do with preventative measures that would not require medical crisis attention, seems sound.” Katy Perry showed up to a Nicole Richie-hosted Marianne for Congress event in 2014. (After the first debate, Perry affectionately tweeted that she, uh, can relate to the candidate’s tone.)

Perhaps most spectacularly, Williamson officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh wedding. “I've officiated at many marriages,” Williamson told the Hollywood Reporter. “What was funny to me was that after her divorce, any time I ran into her she seemed to want to explain almost apologetically how her marriage did not work — almost concerned that I might have taken it personally. It was rather touching.”

Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

“There's the story in the media about Marianne, and then there's the reality of what a powerful presence she really is,” says meditation teacher and author Ben Decker, one of the fundraiser’s co-hosts. While Decker is a spiritual person (he’s also brought Williamson to speak at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, which he attends), he was first introduced to Williamson during her Congressional campaign. “In my mind, she's first and foremost a political leader. She was running on the platform of getting money out of politics, which is the hidden source of so much social dysfunction, which was the most true thing I had heard in a long time,” Decker says. “It was only later that I got to know her spiritual work, which I also find to be a lot more practical than people seem to realize.”

The First Unitarian Church has a history of activism; its founder, Caroline Severance, was an abolitionist and suffragette. When Williamson spoke there, the event had simultaneous Spanish translation and ASL interpretation. “Members of our congregation commented that it was like meeting Martin Luther King or JFK,” Decker says. “In person, she exudes a combination of power and strength, like any head of state, as well as a gentleness and sincerity that feels like you just had a loving exchange with a mother or an understanding aunt.” Because of that, he says, she’s got broad appeal. “I've heard the media emphasize her celebrity support base, but I think it’s important to recognize that her supporters come from all religions and no religion, from all socio-economic backgrounds, and all races. I've known evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, who all love Marianne.”

As Williamson has been carrying her message on the road and livestreaming her lectures and courses for decades, she has followers spread across the U.S. In the mid-aughts, a friend gave Adrianne Murchison a copy of Williamson’s book Everyday Grace. When Williamson traveled to Atlanta, where Murchison, a 56-year-old journalist and podcaster, lives, she sat for an interview with Murchison. And Murchison continued to follow her livestreams; “Her message is really about caring about your fellow man and doing the right thing,” she says.

After the 2016 election, Williamson came back to Atlanta to speak at a church, with a message of moving forward together. “I walked in there feeling horrible, and I walked out of there feeling like, okay, I'm ready to try to embrace this man in some way,” Murchison says. “I'm not a Republican or a Trump person, but she had me walking out of there with some kind of hope in my heart that this is not as bad as I had feared.”

In Murchison’s view, if voters don’t believe Williamson has concrete policies, that’s not for a lack of effort. “There's so much you can find online about her sitting down with people, and laying out what she's about. She's very serious; she said that she's not doing this to lose or to simply make a difference. She intends to win.”

Murchison feels Williamson was blocked from discussing her policies in detail at the first Democratic presidential debate. “[The moderators] just decided, oh, we don't need to talk to the people on the ends,” she says. (Williamson was positioned on the far left of the 10-person stage.) “I was concerned about her answers, but that's over now. I'm happy that her messages are getting out there.”  

The most critical state for Williamson to reach is Iowa, which has the first presidential caucus. (It’s tough to win the nomination if you whiff in Iowa.) Should anyone doubt that Williamson is playing to win, as Murchison underscored and the candidate herself has said many times, she’s been running a serious ground game there; in June, she began renting a condo in Des Moines.

Anna Stoysich, a 40-year-old artist, state park worker, and mother living in Malvern, Iowa, had heard Williamson’s name, but she didn’t know much about her until she saw a CNN interview her friend posted on Facebook. “That video just stunned me. I had to listen to it about two or three times in a row because I couldn't believe what I was hearing,” she said. “I went on her website, researched her some more, and found out she was going to be coming to Iowa pretty shortly thereafter.” She went with a friend to meet Williamson more than an hour away in Creston, in late February. Stoysich’s friend had been a Bernie supporter in 2016, and she liked what Williamson had to say. “My friend’s more progressive, so Marianne kind of fits into that,” Stoysich says. “But I think the more her message gets out and the more people hear it, I think Iowa’s learning to be very open to her.”

Learning itself is part of what draws Stoysich to Williamson. “One thing that I really appreciate about Marianne is that she holds campaign calls where she's educating us on the issues. She's not just telling us how it is, but she's informing us,” she says. “Like why are reparations important for American descendants of slavery? And why is it important to get money out of politics? To me, that's the number one issue out of everything. Because if money's not out of politics, nothing is ever going to fundamentally change.”

“Her message is that we need to reconnect with the founding principles of our country and know that we've never ever sealed the deal,” Stoysich continues. “That even from the beginning, problems were baked into the cake; 41 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. We have enlightened principles, but we still need to close that gap between who we say we are and who we actually are. And that's the main message I remember from that day, hearing that in person from her.”

After the Creston event, Stoysich signed up to volunteer on Williamson’s campaign. “I've always voted and I’ve made small contributions before, but I've never volunteered for a campaign,” she says. “But she’s showing me what 21st century leadership looks like. She's not saying, ‘I'm going to go to Washington and I'm going to change all this.’ She's saying, ‘No, you guys have to step up too.’”

So who are Marianne’s fans? One generalization we can make is that her supporters by and large do not slag the other Democratic candidates. “I support her, and if she's not the nominee, I will support the nominee,” Murchison says.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people are scared that if Marianne doesn't get the primary, her supporters will not vote,” Dullaghan says. “We’re not trying to take votes away from the candidate that deserves the nomination.” She’s also made small donations to Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, and Elizabeth Warren, but she thinks Williamson is better suited to face Trump in the general election. “Marianne has sass, she has class, she's smart, and she's kind. She's very collected, and I could see her on the debate stage in front of the world, making Trump sit down.”

Should Williamson be elected, “I’d love for all of the candidates to be close policy advisers in her cabinet,” Dullaghan says. It’s a point many of her supporters echo; that they will push as hard as they can for her presidency, however unlikely it might seem, with the hope that the other candidates would bring their own talents and experiences to a Williamson administration. “This feels like an incredible lineup of interesting voices, all coming together for a major discussion about the future of our nation and world,” Decker says. Williamson herself went hard for Sanders in 2016 and recently asked her base to help former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel qualify for the second round of the Democratic primary debates.

RELATED: Everything to Know Before the Next Round of Democratic Debates

That round has now arrived; Williamson will join Warren, Sanders, and seven other candidates onstage Tuesday night. “I stand by my substance, but I feel I was a little out of my center,” she told MSNBC of the first go. This time, Williamson continued, “I want to just be myself and say what I believe.”

Her supporters are more than ready to see Williamson take the stage for a rematch. “Every minute that she gets, she just throws, like, a bomb that resonates in the long term,” Hollywood says. “And I think, ‘Man, if she can do that with just a few minutes, imagine what she'll be able to do when she actually is given that time and her voice.’”

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