The 5 Meanings of Arnold

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ADAM NADEL/POLARIS

Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger

If there is one lesson to be learned from California's wild recall, it is that there is no one lesson. At a moment when the stakes could not have been higher, voters turned out a seasoned if bloodless technocrat and put their faith in an action hero who waved a broom. In an era of interminable campaigns, this one lasted nine weeks. At a time when other politicians hauled around briefcases full of 100-page platforms, Arnold Schwarzenegger spouted lines from his movies, gave no substantive interviews and agreed to exactly one debate, for which he knew the questions in advance.

And finally, just as the know-it-alls started talking up a too-close-to-call Florida- style recount, Schwarzenegger left everyone else in the dust with 49% of the vote. Plucked from a two-part ballot and a 135-candidate field, in what was the largest turnout for a gubernatorial election in more than 20 years, Schwarzenegger's victory could only be described as a landslide. So strong was the final wave in private tracking polls that his top strategist, George Gorton, phoned Schwarzenegger Monday night—10 hours before the polls even opened—and told him, "Arnold, it's all over. It's done. It's through."


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Of course, there is the most salient fact of all—that California as an electoral battleground, as in most other things, bears little resemblance to any other place on earth. But California's very uniqueness is the reason the state provides such a perfect Rorschach test for all those looking to convince themselves—and the rest of us—that they are the ideal candidate for the times. Just about everyone who is going to face the voters 13 months from now saw something positive in the results. There are myriad theories as to what the Arnold Effect means—and most of them are true.

1. Anger Can Be Your Friend
The polls in California had been closed for all of seven minutes when Howard Dean issued a statement declaring that the recall had been about neither Governor Gray Davis nor Schwarzenegger but rather "the frustration so many people are feeling about the way things are going." The former Vermont Governor is not the only one who sees parallels between the antiwar fury that has propelled him to the front of the Democratic pack and the economic discontent in California. Once ignited, the anger there could not be tamed.

Said apartment manager Arlene Schwab as she got into her car after voting in a Brentwood carpet store: "I never thought in a million years I'd be for a recall, but it does send a message loud and clear—that we the people can do something" about the state's staggering problems. Davis' pollster, Paul Maslin—who, as it happens, is also Dean's—suggested that what killed one Democrat this year could help all of them in 2004. "Voters are lashing out in frustration at the bad economy and the political system," he said. "The national economy is failing, and the President is out of touch. He should be frightened by today's results."

But dissatisfaction with George W. Bush, though growing, is nowhere near Davis' miserable 74% disapproval rating. And the dour Dean that voters have seen so far bears little resemblance to the relentlessly upbeat campaigner that Schwarzenegger proved to be. Exit polls suggest that for those who voted for Schwarzenegger, his personal qualities mattered far more than any positions he had on the issues. Take Vivien Kooper, a registered Democrat and freelance writer in Los Angeles, who confessed that last Tuesday marked the first time she voted for a Republican. "He seems to be from a guileless and fresh place," she said of Schwarzenegger. "It makes me think things can happen in a new way." All of which sounds promising to a candidate like Wesley Clark, whose appeal lies as much in who he is as in what he stands for.

Optimism sells, as Bill Clinton would be the first to tell you. Even Dean is trying harder to lace his anger with sunshine, telling New York Times editors last week, "America's always been the country of hope and of high moral principles and ideals. Let's hope again." If you're fighting the status quo, it's better to be a happy warrior.

2. Take No One for Granted
For the Bush White House and Republicans across the country, there was no more heartening aspect of the election than the fact that Schwarzenegger cut deep into constituencies that Democrats regard as their own. "Significant parts of what the Democrats take for granted as their base cannot be taken for granted," says Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman. In union households, Schwarzenegger ran roughly even with the leading Democratic contender, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, and he won nearly a third of Latinos and close to 20% of African Americans. He did far better among women than strategists on either side had expected in the wake of a late-breaking scandal over allegations that he had been a serial groper—the substance of which, though not the particulars, he confirmed with the acknowledgment that he had "behaved badly sometimes."v Which is why Democrats are worried. "The election showed Hispanics are not a unified bloc," says New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat and one of the nation's most prominent Latino elected officials. "The Republicans are trying to reach a 40% goal of the Hispanic vote, and this shows that it is doable."

But Schwarzenegger is not exactly your average Republican either. "He's pro-gay rights and pro-choice; he thought the impeachment of Bill Clinton was a horrible waste of time," says Iowa Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer. "The phrase for that in Iowa is 'liberal Democrat.'" On election night, Schwarzenegger was surrounded onstage by his Kennedy-clan in-laws, and he opened his victory speech by telling wife Maria Shriver, "I know how many votes I got today because of you."

3. L.A. Can Be Your Lady
It's probably wishful thinking for Republicans to predict that Schwarzenegger can put the nation's largest state into the red column for Bush next year, but now they can dream a little. "I don't see how you can extrapolate much from this," says a Bush aide. "We're in uncharted territory out there." Some Republicans had even been rooting privately for Schwarzenegger to lose. "The best scenario I thought for Republicans going into this was the recall passes and Cruz Bustamante wins," confesses a top House G.O.P. aide. "Why? Because going into the '04 cycle, you can say to voters, 'Look, you've now had a second Democratic Governor try to tackle this thing, and they can't do it.'"

Although Washington Republicans stayed on the sidelines through the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger is keenly aware that they have an enormous stake in seeing him succeed. He declared the day after the election that he plans to be asking Bush for "a lot of favors." A failed Democratic Governor might have helped Bush in California, but a successful movie-star Republican Governor certainly can't hurt.

4. The Swing Voter Lives!
It has become almost an article of faith among those who follow politics that the swing voter is vanishing. But if California voters elect a Democratic Governor and 11 months later turn him out for a Republican, might you not call that a swing?

California went for a Republican who sounds sort of like a Democrat, so it might follow that the best Democratic choice is one who sounds sort of like a Republican. That's what the campaigns of Joe Lieberman and John Kerry are suggesting, and that's the centrist premise that helped elect Clinton in 1992. "The swing voters turned out," says Mark Penn, pollster to Lieberman, the most conservative candidate in the increasingly left-leaning Democratic field. "They really can be motivated. They do care." But does it take a three-ring circus to bring them out?

The electorate looks polarized in part because politicians have protectively drawn legislative boundary lines to cut down the number of swing districts. California is an extreme case in what is a national trend. "You create districts where the only way an incumbent can lose an election is in a primary to an even more extreme opponent," says California G.O.P. strategist Dan Schnur. "You drive both parties into their respective corners." Witness the redistricting fight in Texas that sent Democratic legislators skedaddling across state lines twice this year. Texas Republicans last week unveiled a plan to create seven congressional seats for themselves—which is pretty much what they had in mind from the start. Another walkout could be in the works.

But the California election showed that if voters get mad enough and motivated enough, they'll cross lines too. And they will direct their anger not at an ideological enemy but at status-quo politics.

5. Don't Snicker
So, is the Schwarzenegger victory the start of something big or just a fluke? Does it tell us something about all of us or merely about the mismatch between a popular movie star and a despised Governor? The answer is yes to all of the above. California's recall was laughed at by the rest of the country as being self-indulgent and not serious, a freak show with porn stars, washed-up celebrities and anyone else who could scrape together a $3,500 filing fee and 65 signatures on a petition. It started as a partisan diversion, fueled by conservative radio hosts and a rich Republican Congressman, Darrell Issa, who was willing to spend his millions to put the question of throwing out the Governor to a vote. By Election Day, it had turned into something much bigger.

There are not many other $30 million-per-movie action stars lining up to campaign in '04, but California's recall suggests that with a limping economy and continued problems overseas, voters across the nation are feeling skittish and might turn to a candidate just because he promises change. There may be no single lesson from the defeat of Gray Davis last week, but it does convey a general sense of menace to the status quo. Incumbents, beware.