Arnold's Bad Day at the Polls

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When a Hollywood studio invests heavily in a movie that turns out to be a box-office flop, the polite euphemism is: "The film didn't find an audience". California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had a similar problem finding his audience in the state's special election yesterday. The former Hollywood star had backed four government reform propositions; by Wednesday morning it was clear that all four were voted down in a crushing rejection of the governor's program for change.

Sensing defeat, the Republican governor made the tactical decision to give his election night speech to supporters in a Beverly Hills hotel long before the final results were tallied. "In a couple of days victories or losses will be behind us," he said, and then got off the stage fast before the real bad news became official. Unlike in Hollywood, there was no chance to make up for the flop with DVD sales.

"This was a big loss for Arnold, but not yet a fatal blow," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican strategist."The question now is how does he reconnect with voters who supported him [in the recall election] in 2003 but who abandoned him this time?" For Schwarzenegger to reconnect, Hoffenblum says, "he has to calm down the rhetoric, stop being the celebrity and start being the governor."

Elizabeth Garrett, professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California in LA, says it will be difficult for Schwarzenegger to get the Democrats to coooperate with him in the next year. "He is facing a very tough year. As a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature, it will be very hard to reach any compromise—they won't want to give him anything in a pre-election year. And voters aren't in a forgiving mood. "California has just spent $50m on a special election which got them nothing—everything was voted down," Garrett notes. "People aren't very happy with their politicians."

All four of the initiatives were aimed at curbing the power of the Democratic Party machine and its organized labor backers in California. Schwarzenegger wanted to have teachers work for five years, not two, before getting tenure; to require unions to ask each individual member before using their dues for political campaigns; to put a cap on state spending; and to put retired judges, not legislators, in charge of redrawing electoral districts. Since the beginning of the year public sector unions have been running bitter attack ads on television against the governor, driving down his popularity rating and neutralizing his value as a celebrity campaigner.

But if the public service unions appeared to be the most visible victors in the election, the Democratic party was also heartened by the results. By pushing this special election, Schwarzenegger took a risk by trying to circumvent the Democrat-controlled legislature in Sacramento and take his reform proposals directly to the people. Schwarzenegger's aides bragged that the governor's celebrity appeal would easily carry the day, but they turned out to be wrong.

Since Schwarzenegger has already announced his intention to run again for the governorship next year, the former action hero realized now is the time to be pragmatic. In his brief speech last night Schwarzenegger turned conciliatory, promising to "find common ground" with the Democratic opponents he had so recently been lambasting as special interests divorced from the people. Californians, concluded the governor, were "sick and tired of all the negative TV ads." Schwarzenegger should know—most of them were directed against him.