The effects of the 2003 recall election on the 2006 California gubernatorial election

Mark W. Wonnacott


As a codified institution, recall elections are not incredibly rare. Some petition mechanism exists for removing elected state and local officials from office in several US states. However, the use of this mechanism is at least fairly rare. They are unique as occurrences in US politics because they require the spontaneous and decentralized mobilization of the electorate. Under ordinary circumstances, to get even half of the registered electorate to the polls to vote requires an outpouring of resources towards transportation, education, and advertisement. In a recall election, a substantial portion of that electorate acts without relying on that centralized process. A petition circulates and signatures are collected, and the electorate voluntarily participates in another two polling exercises. This process requires overcoming a variety of factors such as voter apathy, fatigue, and the declining strength of traditional instruments of political mobilization that make election turn-out low in America. This makes recall elections unique institutions worth studying.

            Because of their rarity, recall elections are also somewhat shaky processes. The mechanism for refilling a vacated office often has not been subjected to rigorous scrutiny to determine the potential effects. Such was the case in California in 2004. A critical mass of Californians successfully petitioned to have a recall election on Governor Gray Davis, the first time this measure has been used in California. In an ordinary election, only candidates nominated by a recognized, state-sanctioned political party would appear on the ballot. Due to a loophole in California law governing recall elections, anyone who collected a token quantity of signatures could be placed on the ballot.  As a result of this loophole, a wide variety of celebrity and oddball candidates appeared, such as adult entertainment star Mary “Mary Cary” Cook and former child actor Gary Coleman. However, a plurality of voters ended up electing Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had secured the Republican nomination. Schwarzenegger won with a narrow lead over incumbent Gray Davis, whose lack of popularity had initiated the recall (Carr 2004). Most of the nontraditional candidates failed to attract substantial votes, with Coleman and Kary leading the pack at around 10,000 votes each (Carr 2004).

            In November, Schwarzenegger came up for re-election and won by a very clear 1.5 million vote majority (MSNBC 2006). While the governorship of California has always been hotly contested, and it is unsurprising that a Republican governor would win, this is a much larger margin of victory than has been seen recently in California (Carr 2004). The fact that at virtually no time was Schwarzenegger’s campaign faced with a real challenger is peculiar, particularly in a state where few governors serve for extended periods of time.

            Another phenomenon that should be examined is the fact that, after experiencing record highs in voter turnout with almost eight million (Carr 2004), voter turnout plummeted to a new low, with 5.2 million ballots counted, roughly 2 million ballots shy of the average (McPherson 2006). This is only 33.6% of registered voters. Obviously, this is a troubling sign for defenders of elections as the principle means of political participation, and is something those defenders should attempt to explain so as to avoid similar situations in the future.

            Three possible narrative constructions of the event can help to explain the phenomenally high numbers in 2003 and the phenomenally low numbers in 2006. The first of these is the party politics story. This understanding would put the party structure at the center of the explanation and illustrate the ways in which the changes within the party and the different positions into which the parties are placed are leading contributors to the turnout for the election, as well as the eventual victor. The second explanation is one of candidate strength. This explanation will focus on the ability of candidates to stick in the public mind as a persona and to successfully market that persona to voters. This marketing not only encourages them to select one candidate over another, but also to select a candidate in general. The third explanation will examine the substantive policy changes that took place during the election, specifically focusing on the ballot initiatives proposed by Schwarzenegger in the later part of his first term and the California public’s reaction to them.

            The first step in the party explanation is to examine the changes that parties may have undergone starting in the 2003 recall elections. The Democratic candidate Gray Davis was exceptionally unpopular. His failure to execute adequate policy change on contentious immigration issues like driver’s licenses and work permits was the primary impetus for the recall movement (Marelius 2006). The catalyst issue was his ultimate failure to adequately deal with the economic problems facing California. In 2001, California was experiencing rolling blackouts that the governor’s office was accused of reacting to too slowly (Coleman 2003). In December of 2002, Davis announced a record-setting $35 billion budget deficit (Rojas 2004). Again, Davis took the blame and his approval rating dipped to its all time low of 24% (Source?). This put the Democrats in a very unfavorable position. They could either abandon their incumbent and alienate themselves from the voices inside the party that had elected him or they could stick with an unpopular candidate and lose out on the substantial portion of the electorate that pushed for the recall initiative. Either situation would be a very difficult one from which to campaign. As Davis was already very unpopular, the Democratic party image was way behind from the start. They failed to pick a position. The Democratic party selected a candidate to run in the recall election, but did was relatively silent on the issue, allowing the GOP to prevail.

            This may be a generalizable observation about recall elections. The incumbent party is logically put in a difficult position. This is a distinctly different position than simply running an unpopular incumbent. The primary process in regular elections can serve to check this back. If an incumbent has serious electability issues, then the primary process should provide another candidate. The recall election, then, generally serves to hurt incumbent strength much more than an unpopular incumbent could. Also, the ability of an incumbent party to run another candidate is hampered by the party affiliation of the incumbent. Essentially, in the instance of the 2003 recall elections, two Democratic candidates were on the ballot. Voters could vote against the recall (essentially a vote for Gray Davis) and select a Democratic candidate to fill the governorship, but the confusing nature of the ballot for people wanting to preserve the incumbent party may have hindered the Democratic candidate.

            Furthermore, the recall election has long-term results. The Democratic party was still deeply divided in 2006. In this situation, in order to be effective, the Democrats would have had to present a unified front behind a strong candidate in order to have a chance in the 2006 election. They failed on both counts. Neither candidate was very strong. Of voters polled, only 45% had an opinion at all about Phil Angelides, the eventual winner of the primary, and only 40% had an opinion about Steve Westly, the next highest vote-getter in the Democratic primary (Hecht 2006). In addition, the primary process was hopelessly negative. Both candidates resorted to attack ads very early on in the primary, leading to deep divisions and animosity between branches of the Democratic party. This animosity hurt voter turnout for traditional Democratic voters, who saw the divisions in the party as indicative of failure. Towards the end of the election cycle, many voters polled felt Schwarzenegger would win even if they voted for Angelides (Salladay 2006). This discouragement helps to explain low voter turnout as well as the landslide victory that Schwarzenegger enjoyed.

            Even the process of division worked against the candidates. Angelides was forced to spend a huge sum of money in the primary election, making it very easy for the Republicans to outspend them five to one in the general election (Kurtzman 2006). Additionally, the negative nature of the primary election made it possible for Schwarzenegger to avoid attack advertisements. He had merely to remind voters of the negative advertisements run by Westly which described Angelides as an enemy of environmental regulations, one of his central campaign issues (Kurtzman 2006).

            The only real change the Republican party underwent was the successful distancing of Schwarzenegger from George W. Bush. In other elections around the country, Republicans took a beating because of the low approval ratings of Bush (Kurtzman 2006). Schwarzenegger was able to avoid this because of his independent persona. The recall elections, which reflected a breakdown in the party system, allows Schwarzenegger to position himself as an independent candidate. His affiliation with the Republican party was more a move of political convenience than political congruence. His unwillingness to support a number of unpopular Bush policies such as the war in Iraq helped him evade a number of attacks that Angelides leveled against him (Kurtzman 2006). Schwarzenegger’s evasiveness made voters wonder why Angelides was discussing the President in what appeared to be an unrelated election. Also, this distancing forced Angelides to waste a portion of his already sharply limited resources, giving Schwarzenegger the edge in the money contest, which allowed him to dominate television markets (Salladay 2006).

            Fundamentally, then, the recall election did damage to the Democrats from which they were unable to recover. The albatross of Gray Davis hamstrung both candidates, and the divisions in the Democratic party, caused by the recall elections, created an extremely contentious primary that sabotaged both candidates. The recall elections helped the Republican party by creating a media circus that allowed them to run a non-partisan candidate to get a partisan agenda on the docket. Generally, it can be concluded that recall elections catapult parties that have a difficult time getting voters mobilized into the competition, and pose unique problems for the incumbent party, regardless of historic popularity or candidate strength.

            The second mode of explanation is the strength of competing candidates. The recall election, because of the unique legal loopholes in California, brought about a tremendous media circus (Salladay 2006). While Schwarzenegger had a defined political platform, that he was going to “clean out state government of special interests”, the most notable quality he brought to the election was his pre-existing popularity and name recognition. Very few, if any, California voters had not heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger. While this is also true of candidates like Gary Coleman and Mary Cook, Schwarzenegger brought to the campaign a unique combination of money, popularity, charisma, and political ideology that enabled him to win a plurality in the recall election. He was a strong candidate, and his capture of the Republican nomination provided him with a base of voters that only needed a recognizable candidate behind which to rally.

            Further, the space opened for Schwarzenegger in the recall election enabled him to gain leverage as a political figure. Much has been written about the various advantages incumbents wield. The most notable in Schwarzenegger’s case was his strategic use of the threat of veto to negotiate compromise legislation for which he could take credit (Nicholas 2006). Schwarzenegger was able to wield the veto power to get the mostly-Democratic legislature to work with him on a variety of policies, including a program designed to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions, one of the issues the special 2005 election revealed was very important to voters. This opportunity to use the veto power to build consensus to stack on top of Schwarzenegger’s already impressive charisma would not have presented itself absent the unique legal conditions of California’s recall election.

            The failing of the Democratic party to field strong candidates reflects a failure of strategy. As both contenders in the 2006 Democratic primary were relative unknowns and were unable to develop a strong persona in the media, they were unable to mobilize voters in the same way as were the Republicans. The Democrats were running career politicians of the same sort regardless of the fact that the political climate had changed substantially post 2003. To be charitable, the Democrats may have known they could not hope to field a candidate as charismatic and media-friendly as Schwarzenegger, and may have hoped to shift the plane of the election to some other forum more advantageous to the type of election strategy they hoped to employ. In any event, their strategic planning was insufficient.

            The model of election here is one of competing personal images (White and Shae 2004). This model moves beyond party-level analysis and discusses the marketing of personal statements about candidates to the electorate. In this model, the candidate that wins is the one who is able to ingrain in the public the most favorable personal image. This model relies on charismatic candidates and professional teams of campaign managers, and downplays the significance of parties to the election process. According to White and Shae, the effect of political parties in American elections has declined since the Progressive reforms weakened the effect of machine politics and diffused control over civil services from the hands of party bosses. This model seems appropriate in this context, given the above statistics about candidate strength, although excluding the explanatory value of political parties seems a bit extreme, given the connections political parties have with campaign contributors and voter mobilization efforts, however, their explanation does have a great deal of congruence with the evidence available about the reality of the 2006 election.

 The recall election’s unique effect in this case was to create the media frenzy, and this effect is unique to California’s legal conditions. It is much more difficult to generalize about the effects of recall elections in general based on this understanding of the 2006 election. However, given the rarity of such elections, it would be unsurprising if similar, though less intense, frenzies may result. In this way, it may be generally true that recall elections, due to their uniqueness, require more media-friendly candidates, and subsequent elections, where the effects of that media charisma are still being felt, may also require fielding generally stronger candidates.

Finally, there are policy changes conducted by the Schwarzenegger administration that may explain the landslide victory. In several interviews, Schwarzenegger identified himself as a non-partisan candidate. He moved to the center on a number of issues, such as global warming, immigration reform, prison overcrowding, and health care. He did so in a unique way. He took a gamble in 2005 by calling for a special election in which ballot initiatives were presented to the public. Specifically, these were Republican initiatives dealing with probationary periods for new teachers, union strength, state budget caps, and legislative redistricting (Marelius 2005). It was a gamble because the Governor actively campaigned for these issues, linking his political fate with theirs. On the other hand, by putting them to referendum, he avoided spending political capital on potentially divisive issues. All four initiatives failed, but not because of the legislature. In this respect, it doesn’t really hurt Schwarzenegger to ask, even if he did campaign for the initiatives. Because they weren’t passed, no blame can be assigned to Schwarzenegger for making a poor decision, and the ballot initiative was a full year in front of the election cycle, which made it very easy to refocus the election. In this way, the ballot initiatives gave Schwarzenegger a good thermometer on the voting public and how likely they were to respond to a particular version of his policies. This gave him time to retool sufficiently that he was able to call himself “more democrat than Angelides” (Brokaw 2006). The swing to the left that occurred after the ballot initiatives was remarkable and illustrative of good planning by the Schwarzenegger camp. The end effect of this policy shift was that it was much more difficult for the Democratic candidate to move the election from a competition between personal images to a competition between personal messages. As previously described, the Democrats had little chance in a contest of charisma against Governor Schwarzenegger.

The recall election had little discernable effect on the policy mediations of the Schwarzenegger campaign. The policy changes arguably would have occurred in any election with the same candidates. This model of election does not allow much room for the recall election to play a significant role in the 2006 elections.

In conclusion, it is difficult at this point to determine the effects of recall elections in general. In the California context, they appear to have the effect of moving the election towards a competition between personal messages and posing immense difficulties to the incumbent party. Recall elections appear to have the greatest impact on political parties, which, according to some measures, are of declining importance in American politics. However, they still undoubtedly play a role in the determination of elections. Furthermore, recall elections appear to have the effect of increasing voter turnout as they generate a great deal of media attention. They also have the divisive effects on the incumbent party, which can hurt voter turnout in subsequent elections. Further study on the issue could examine other recall elections in which the media frenzy does not exist to attempt to control that variable. Alternately, a longitudinal study about the effects of the California recall election on subsequent elections could shed light on the long term implications of such an election.


Works Cited


Brokaw, Tom. “California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses re-election bid and charges he’s more Democratic than Republican”. NBC News Transcripts, October 27, 2006. Online. Lexis.

Carr, Adam (2004). United States: State of California: Gubernatorial Elections. Retrieved December 12, 2006 from 

Hecht, Peter. “For Angelides, campaign path points uphill.” Sacramento Bee. July 17, 2006. Online. Lexis.

Kurtzman, Laura. “Schwarzenegger widens lead as rival for California governor tries to tie him to Bush.” Associated Press. October 1, 2006. Online. Lexis.

McPherson, Bruce. (2006). CA Secretary of State- Primary Election- County Status retrieved December 12, 2006 from

Nicholas, Peter. “Election 2006: A Second Term for Schwarzenegger.” Los Angeles Times. November 8, 2006. Online. Lexis.

Salladay, Robert. “Back to Politics as Usual, More or Less: Compared to the recall and last year’s special election, this choice is more traditional, except for Schwarzenegger’s enduring celebrity.” Los Angeles Times. October 15, 2006. Online. Lexis.

White, John Kenneth, and Daniel M. Shea,  New Party Politics, Thomson Learning: New York, NY, 2004.