But you wouldn’t have known it at the state fair on Friday. Williamson floated through the fairgrounds like some sort of celestial being, unbothered by the harsh sun and perpetually surrounded by a throng of sweaty supporters demanding selfies and hoping to soak up some of her good vibes. Speaking at The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, a mini stage where candidates take turns offering truncated stump speeches and fielding questions from curious Iowans, Williamson commanded a much larger crowd than either the entrepreneur Andrew Yang or former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who had both spoken before her. The Iowans in attendance may well have known about her low polling numbers—and about recent criticism she’s generated with her comments on science and medicine—but they seemed drawn to her nonetheless.
“We have an amoral economic mind-set that has corrupted our government and hijacked our value systems,” she told the audience, standing onstage in wedge heels and a marbled, blue-and-mauve blazer as a quiet drumbeat played ominously from the speakers. The “conventional political establishment” is the problem, she said, to loud applause, and it’s time for the American people to wake up. “While it is true that sometimes Americans are slow to wake up,” she added, “once we do wake up, we slam it like nobody’s business!”
Williamson’s eccentric performances in the first two presidential-primary debates are what put her on the map for many Americans: Hers was the most Googled name in the hours after the first debate, when, speaking in a quasi-Mid-Atlantic accent not unlike Katharine Hepburn’s, Williamson threatened to “harness love” to conquer President Donald Trump. In the second debate, she promised to combat the “dark, psychic force” of hatred in America, and offered a forceful argument for the payment of reparations to descendants of enslaved people in America.
Read: The case for reparations
Although Williamson describes herself as a “pretty straight-line progressive Democrat,” she’s taken pains to set herself apart from the other liberal presidential hopefuls. She criticized Elizabeth Warren’s oft-discussed plans in the first primary debate by labeling them “superficial fixes” to the much deeper problems facing the country. “If you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming,” Williamson said, citing America’s so-called sick-care system and the need for improved preventive care. “I’ve had a career not making political plans but harnessing the inspiration and the motivation and the excitement of people, masses of people,” she told the audience.
Her message seems to resonate with voters who view issues such as gun violence, the rising cost of health care, and climate change as symptoms of more profound societal problems. “Rather than just putting Band-Aids on things, she’s looking” deeper, Ken Golden, a 59-year-old from West Des Moines, told me. I met Golden at a booth for the Iowa Democratic Party, where Williamson was signing autographs for eager fairgoers. “Dude, it’s Marianne!” yelled one teenage boy to his friend, before the two made a beeline toward her to get a selfie. A team of mostly middle-aged women staffers followed her around, carrying clipboards and wearing purple T-shirts and pink baseball caps, in keeping with the campaign’s color scheme. They passed out metal buttons bearing a watercolor portrait of Williamson looking pensive, with a single lock of hair covering her left eye. At first glance, I thought it may have been a reimagining of the cover for “Space Oddity.”