In California, 2016 Race Recalls Another Unconventional Campaign

The state’s 2003 election pitted a staid Democrat against a celebrity political novice.

The crowd yells out in support as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on June 5, 2016, in Sacramento, California.

Photographer: GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images

A restive electorate, a staid establishment Democrat, and a flamboyant celebrity running as a Republican and promising to blow up the status quo.

As Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump crossed California at the end of last week delivering a preview of their expected general-election battle for the presidency, many of the state's voters can't help but feel that they've seen it before.

It was 13 years ago that Californians endured a surreal recall election that ousted Democratic Governor Gray Davis and installed action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the executive office.

California’s experience shows how celebrity can create a familiarity with voters that traditional politicians struggle to achieve, and how intense anger with the existing order can embolden voters to take a leap of faith to send a message to the establishment.  

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Davis, now a Los Angeles-based attorney who remains active in state politics, said he began telling friends and associates last November that Trump would most likely be Clinton's opponent in the general election.

“Being a wealthy celebrity means people think they know you. They think they know where you’re coming from, and it’s a nice advantage to have,” Davis said in an interview. “I believe to my core that Hillary will be president. But I do think this: The old rules have gone out the window.”

Tuesday's primary in California will close out the presidential nomination races for both parties. (Washington, D.C., will hold a Democratic primary the following week that won't have an impact on the race.) Trump has already sewn up the Republican contest. Clinton is expected to clinch the Democratic nomination over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders when voting in California and five other states is done. After winning Puerto Rico’s primary Sunday, she was just 26 delegates short of the nomination, according to the Associated Press.

Engaging Battle

California, which hasn't voted for the Republican president candidate since 1988, isn't likely to be a battleground in November. But Clinton and Trump both used it as a venue to launch their most direct and blistering attacks on each other to date as the general election fight was engaged.

Speaking Thursday in San Diego, Clinton mocked Trump's rhetoric as “dangerously incoherent” and said his policy pronouncements are “just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.” Later in San Jose, Trump said Clinton should be jailed for her use of private e-mail while secretary of state. “The fact that they even let her participate in this race is a disgrace to the United States,” he said.

As it was in California in 2003, the national candidates in 2016 are running in an atmosphere of voter frustration with the economy, anger with the establishment, and feelings of powerlessness against special interests. California’s recall also took place against a backdrop of changing demographics and cultural norms. It drew its most concentrated support from white men and from pockets of the state, such as the Inland Empire and Orange County, where traffic, infrastructure challenges, housing, and job prospects were chronic concerns.

Mixed Feelings

“I do see some similarities,” said Lee Olavides, 49, a salesman from Chino Hills, who voted to recall Davis and replace him with Schwarzenegger. Olavides said he leans Republican but has mixed feeling about how to vote in the presidential race.

“If it’s Trump, will his stubborn, kind of off-the-cuff reactions be a reality, or is it more for show and will his business sense come through and will he make a difference?” he said. “With Hillary, all the stuff you read and hear about, will it affect her running the country?”

The attraction of Trump’s promises of major change is offset in his mind by memories of Schwarzenegger’s tenure.

“I thought he’d make a bigger difference,” Olavides said of the former governor. “Looking back now, whoever we put in are just the puppets of the House and the Senate. Their hands are tied.”

Travis Holmes, 60, of Altadena, who voted to recall Davis, said he also was disappointed that Schwarzenegger “ended up backing away” from fights. But he doesn't regret his vote and said he still likes candidates who promise assertive action.

“I’ve been Trump all along,” Holmes said. “He came out of the bullpen saying things that make sense. We’re seen as such wimps everywhere around the world.''

Despite Trump’s reality-TV credentials, Holmes said he's concluded that “Trump is not Hollywood; he’s a New York businessman.”

Different Candidate

Davis said he doesn't believe what happened to him in the recall foreshadows Clinton's fate in November, in large part because Trump is a less controlled and more polarizing candidate.

“Arnold was a more disciplined campaigner and his politics were essentially a centrist—maybe just a hair to the right,” Davis said.

Schwarzenegger, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican political consultant who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said there are significant differences as well as parallels.

“Arnold was a much more classic moderate; Trump’s obviously something much different—a nationalist, an isolationist,” Schnur said. “That said, there’s a lot of similarities in terms of structure. There were three types of voters who were attracted to Schwarzenegger: celebrity-seekers, conservatives who hated Democrats, and populists who hated all politicians. Both of them attracting support from a lot of voters who are a lot more conservative than they are.”

Clinton, at the same time, confronts a challenge that Davis said worked against him. Clinton is a familiar public figure after spending eight years as first lady, eight years in the U.S. Senate, and four years as President Barack Obama's secretary of state. She's embraced Obama's legacy in her primary campaign and Republicans are portraying her as running to serve Obama's third term.

“It’s very hard for popularity to endure beyond two terms,” said Davis, who had won a second term only months before the effort to recall him forced him to effectively run a third campaign.

“There was just no enthusiasm for Davis and that’s the problem Hillary faces,” said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor and associate dean at the University of California at Riverside.

In interviews, voters in California had one thing in common no matter where they stood on the political spectrum: low expectations.

“I’m a Democrat, but I believe whoever wins, it’s going to be the same,” said Daniela Soto, 35, a bus driver who moved to California from Texas in 2003 as the recall campaign was underway. She didn’t switch her state registration in time for the vote. Soto said she’s excited to support Clinton’s candidacy this year and to try to elect the country’s first woman president, but that in her heart, “I don’t think the country’s going to change. Not even if Trump wins. Nothing’s going to change.”

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