SACRAMENTO — “He arrived in America a penniless bodybuilder, born in an obscure Austrian village, armed only with the immigrant’s time-honored weapons of hope, ambition and an almost supernatural belief in the great American Dream. Arnold Schwarzenegger has become a Hollywood legend, a latter-day Jay Gatsby, a self-created man whose unwavering belief in himself has led him to scale undreamed-of heights in quest of his chosen destiny.…What, in fact, does Arnold still want?” — Wendy Leigh in Arnold: An Unauthorized Biography.
“He’s proven that you can still do whatever you want to do in this country.” — Terminator and Titanic Director James Cameron.
California is often known for starting national trends like convertibles, revolving credit cards, health foods, hula hoops, the fitness boom, the tax revolt, high-tech industry, and the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
After nearly a decade of relative calm, the Golden State is stirring politically.
Now California may be leading the nation again: voters will soon have the option of recalling the incumbent Gov. Gray Davis. The Golden State’s size and media influence guarantee any special recall election would gain massive national attention as the biggest domestic political story of 2003. But if champion-bodybuilder-turned-action-superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger enters the race to replace Davis, it will become a full-scale media circus, overshadowing even the start of the presidential election.
As of this writing, Schwarzenegger is reportedly undecided on the race due to the privacy concerns of his wife, Maria Kennedy Shriver. Another unanswered question is whether this recall attempt is unique to California’s current problems or signals a new pattern of extreme voter impatience with their leaders.
First, a word about the mechanics of California’s recall rules: Under state law, any elected official can be recalled if 12 percent of the number of voters in the last election sign a petition demanding an election. Last Wednesday, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley announced that a petition drive to recall Davis had qualified for the ballot. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante then called a special election for Oct. 7.
There will be two questions on the ballot: a) Should Davis be recalled; and b) if he is recalled, who should replace him? A simple majority decides the first question: If 50 percent plus one of the total votes is cast to keep the governor in office, the process is over. But if a majority votes to recall the governor, the second question is a nonpartisan “winner-take-all” election. There is no need to obtain a majority, whoever gets the most votes that day is the new governor-elect.
Recent surveys on the recall question commissioned by the Los Angeles Times and the Field Poll show that slight majorities of voters favor recalling Davis.
However, Davis is a tough, resourceful campaigner who had been repeatedly underestimated. It’s quite possible he can win this election. If most Democrats and a majority of independents support him, the governor will survive. At this point, the recall looks too close to call with a hard-fought campaign in the offing.
Since Davis has low approval ratings and the recall question will surely be hotly contested, one key will be the attractiveness of potential successors. Simply put, if the alternatives don’t come across well, the state will probably stick with Davis. But if there appear to be a solid list of choices, the governor’s unpopularity will likely sink him.
The Times’s poll showed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), to be the leading choice to replace Davis. But Feinstein says she’s not running and vehemently opposes the recall. In the Times poll, Schwarzenegger was tied with former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan for second place. (Since Riordan and Schwarzenegger are close, only one of them will run. If Riordan doesn’t run, Schwarzenegger becomes the frontrunner.)
So according to “neutral” public surveys, Schwarzenegger has a respectable chance of becoming California’s next leader. Who is Schwarzenegger and what does he believe? Who supports him and what are his prospects of winning?
Schwarzenegger seems a bundle of contradictions: an outspoken Republican who’s married to Democratic stalwart Sen. Ted Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver (and the daughter of George McGovern’s running mate!). A man who proclaims his life story to be a triumph of individual will, yet often reaches out to people less successful than he. An actor who has regularly been roughed up by critics, yet won a Golden Globe Award for Best Acting debut. A dedicated “jock” who spent years in the weight room, but also has a master of business administration degree. A brutally tough business negotiator who’s given away millions to charity. An aggressive bachelor in his younger days who also helped advance women’s bodybuilding. A “health nut” who has also taken massive doses of steroids. A man whose father was literally a Nazi in occupied Austria, but whose career has been immeasurably helped by Jewish promoters and producers and calls himself an “honorary Jew.” A top-notch athlete whose first charitable work was with handicapped children.
When a producer in the 1970s advised him to change his last name, Schwarzenegger replied that one day he would be so famous, the entire world would know him by his first name alone. And so it’s been-the name “Arnold” invokes just one person.
Schwarzenegger became the most famous bodybuilder ever: The book and film Pumping Iron brought the sport into the mainstream and helped spark the fitness boom of the 1970s. The film Conan the Barbarian made Schwarzenegger a worldwide star in 1982. Over the next two decades, he starred in a dozen blockbusters. His second Terminator film was the last pure action movie to lead the box office for the year. Since Twins in 1988, he’s shifted to a mix of family-oriented comedies with action. After an early 50s career slump, Arnold is back bigger than ever with Terminator 3, which took in more than $130 million in three weeks.
Wendy Leigh’s controversial profile — the book sparked a lawsuit — depicts a complex, fiercely proud, ferociously ambitious, totally driven, shrewd, strong-willed man who is a fast learner, a ruthless competitor, fanatically loyal to benefactors, surprisingly generous, and a world-class charmer. As Pumping Iron demonstrated, he can be competitive to the point of outright meanness, with a history of ugly practical jokes (he said that he enjoyed using “psychological warfare” against body-building rivals).
His marriage to Shriver in 1986 and maturity changed Schwarzenegger for the better. Undoubtedly his mother-in-law, Eunice, President Kennedy’s younger sister, who has devoted her life to the handicapped and underprivileged, influenced him.
Schwarzenegger faced up to his father’s Nazi past, reaching out to the Jewish community and donating his salary (more than $5 million) from Terminator 2 to the Holocaust Museum. Since he met Shriver, he’s been the weight-lifting coach for the Special Olympics. He’s also a leading sponsor of the Inner City Games. His first independent foray in California politics was his championing of Proposition 49 in 2002 to create after-school programs for kids. (He both financed the campaign and starred in the TV ads). Unlike O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, or former Sen. Bill Bradley, he’s apparently learned that great success frees a person to be a nice guy. Like Maria’s uncle, Robert Kennedy, he has tremendous rapport with children: If the voting age were lowered to 5, he’d be a shoo-in.
Schwarzenegger’s politics also changed as he aged. A Reagan Republican and a staunch conservative in the ’80s, he moderated his politics in the last decade. Schwarzenegger says he is pro-choice, supports gay rights, and endorses “reasonable” gun controls and environmental regulation.
During the Clinton impeachment drama, Schwarzenegger said he was “embarrassed” by Ken Starr’s investigation of the president’s private life. While his fellow national Republicans appear to be tilting right, he’s followed the recent leftward drift of California politics. He has ended up being a lot closer to Clinton than Newt Gingrich.
As someone who’s never held office, he’s free to create an ideological profile. Schwarzenegger seems a fiscal conservative and social liberal, very much in the mainstream of California politics. Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee calls him a “pragmatic libertarian,” who believes in both the merit principle and “providing the opportunity for every child to fulfill his dreams.”
If no prominent Democrat runs, Schwarzenegger will be in a strong position to garner the votes of the huge bloc of voters (65 percent in the 2002 exit poll) who are not conservatives. He is also the one Republican likely to score with minority communities. Were Schwarzenegger to become governor, he would have the chance to re-mold the California Republican party in a more moderate and more inclusive direction.
Which voters are likely to back Schwarzenegger? The Field Poll showed that he’s strongest with self-described moderates, Republicans, rural voters and perhaps surprisingly, Hispanics. His Kennedy family connections obviously help here and he does speak a little Spanish.
He’ll almost certainly run as a non-partisan “citizen” reformer, trying to put together a coalition of moderate Republicans, independents and ethnic Democrats. In a standard two-way partisan match-up against say, Feinstein, he would be at a disadvantage because California has more Democrats than Republicans, more female voters than males and more moderate liberals than conservatives.
The Field Poll showed that a majority of Californians had a positive impression of Schwarzenegger, but were also “not inclined” to vote for him. Under normal conditions, he’d likely struggle to win statewide office.
But the circumstances of 2003 are anything but normal. Both the Times and Field polls show that more than two-thirds of voters think the state is going in the wrong direction. And both parties in the state legislature are getting even worse marks than Davis. It’s creating a classic “throw-the-bums-out” mood. Who better to play the “man on horseback” role riding to the state’s rescue than the cinematic successor to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood?
With at least four major candidates in the race, a contender is likely to need only about 35 percent of the vote to win. Democrats underestimate this man at their peril: Schwarzenegger will be the toughest opponent they’ve faced since Reagan.
Pollster Mervin Field once said that celebrity candidates tend to peak on the day they announce because they are so well known they have nowhere to go but down. But Schwarzenegger apparently likes to be underestimated. While promoting Conan in 1982, he told the New York Times: “It’s good if they think you’re dumb. Then they expect the worst, and anything you do well becomes a big plus for you.”
To win, Schwarzenegger will have to demonstrate some knowledge of California’s history and problems. While there’s little doubt of his ability to project strength, he’ll have to display some empathy as well. This could be a campaign that’s decided very quickly: if Schwarzenegger can’t survive the intense media scrutiny after he announces and the inevitable harsh attacks from his opponents that will come in the first two weeks, he could become a joke overnight. But if Schwarzenegger gets off to a good start, if he comes across as informed and reasonable, he’ll become (in my mind) the solid favorite due to his money, charisma, political profile and fame, particularly if no big-name Democrat enters the race.
So, on paper, Schwarzenegger looks like a great candidate. But there are three unknown “X” factors that could derail his ambitions. First is that he’s never experienced the pressures of a major campaign and he could self-destruct, perhaps losing his temper with the media or the public. Second is that rumors of troubles in his personal life could be off-putting to older voters, especially women. Third is simply the luck of the draw: Schwarzenegger’s life journey from a poor farm kid in Austria to championship athlete to the world’s biggest movie star has been beyond fabulous, it’s legendary. He’s the only athlete to successfully make the transition to box office attraction, but he could draw some lousy cards in his first campaign.
The guess here is that if Davis runs a skillful campaign defending himself, he’ll retain his office. But if Davis makes mistakes and Schwarzenegger can generate any early momentum, he’ll be awfully tough to stop.
— Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. This article was originally written for United Press International and is reprinted with permission.