California's Crazy Recall

By David G. Lawrence, Professor of Political Science

A French newspaper called it “fou-fou-fou”— crazy, crazy, crazy. The British newspaper, The Guardian, called it “A circus fit for the fruit and nut state.” Of course they were referring to the 2003 California recall election. On this side of the Atlantic, the recall seemed to warrant the coverage of a national election replete with daily CNN updates, magazine cover stories, and late-night comedy jokes. Governor Gray Davis lost his job and action-movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger took his place. But what political dynamics led to this resul

The story begins in the early 1900s. The Progressives were determined to clean up and depoliticize the governing of state and local governments nationwide. In California, attorney Hiram Johnson raged against Boss Ruef’s San Francisco political machine and the statewide machine controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad. As governor, he pushed numerous reforms, including the referendum (submitting legislative statutes to a public vote), the initiative (voter-initiated statutes and constitutional amendments), and the recall (forcing elected officials out of office between regular elections). On the eve of the 1911 election that would place these reforms in the California Constitution, Johnson promised, “The recall will be a pistol in the hands of the people.” The San Francisco Chronicle was more critical of this particular reform. One 1911 headline read “California May Become the Laughing Stock of the Country.”

From 1911 to the present, the recall has been used numerous times at the local level to oust — or try to oust — mayors, city council members, and county supervisors. The reasons for these recalls run the gamut — corruption, cronyism, mishandling money, firing popular employees, personality conflicts are just a few. No statewide official had been recalled before the 2003 election, and it is easy to see why. It takes more than rage to recall a governor. The California Constitution requires that 12 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election sign recall petitions calling for an election. In 2003, this amounted to just under 900,000 signatures. In short, the rules tend to be stacked against such an effort in a huge state like California. Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No.

The Governor’s Troubles

By early 2003, voters were angry, if not in a rage. While blame for the 2001 energy crisis was widely shared (botched deregulation by a previous legislature and governor, speculative practices by Enron and other energy traders, government inaction), it was easy to put the blame squarely on Governor Gray Davis. In his first term (1999-2003), he had developed a reputation as a micro-managing, colorless leader obsessed with fund raising. Even legislative allies chafed when he claimed the legislature should “implement my vision” for the state. An influx of revenue from technology stock options and capital gains taxes allowed Governor Davis and the Democratically controlled legislature to fund education reforms, infrastructure improvements, growing social welfare costs, and even afford a number of tax cuts — including a cut in the vehicle license fee. In the March 2002 gubernatorial primary, he financed a negative media blitz aimed at former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. In part due to those negative ads, Riordan lost to wealthy businessman and political neophyte Bill Simon. In the fall general election campaign, Davis survived his reelection bid by 5 percent — a surprisingly narrow margin of victory given Davis’s negatives and Simon’s poorly waged campaign. Lost in campaign rhetoric were the mounting revenue problems of the state. The budget had become a ticking bomb. The national economy was struggling, and California’s bubble had burst. State revenues from that sector dropped like a rock. In turn, the state’s general fund revenue declined; in 2001-2002 alone, it dropped roughly 17 percent. Instead of stressing budget issues, Davis emphasized his first-term record of educational reform and the legal difficulties of Simon’s investment business.

Then came January 2003. The state constitution requires the governor to submit a balanced budget by January 10, and Davis did so. For nearly seven months, the “governor’s budget” was criticized and lobbied against by virtually every organized group in California. Higher taxes, deep spending cuts — plus the usual accounting gimmicks used to cobble a budget together — it had something in it for anyone and everyone to hate. And it was at that point Davis’s budget. He clearly was at the center of the closest thing to “The Perfect Storm” one finds in politics.

Money and Momentum

Also, in early 2003, anti-tax activist and People’s Advocate gadfly Ted Costa pushed the idea of recalling Davis. He proposed the following rationale for recalling Davis, language that would appear on the official recall signature petitions: “Gross mismanagement of California finances by overspending taxpayers’ money, threatening public safety by cutting funds to local governments, failing to account for the exorbitant cost of the energy fiasco, and failing in general to deal with the state’s major problems until they get to the crisis stage. California should not have to be known as the state with poor schools, traffic jams, outrageous utility bills, and huge debts…all caused by gross mismanagement.” In March, the secretary of state certified Costa’s recall petition for circulation, giving him the constitutionally mandated 160 days to collect 897,158 signatures. In April, a Field Poll labeled Davis the most disapproved of governor in the past 55 years. Furthermore, a sizeable 46 percent of respondents expressed support for the recall drive. How would Costa channel those views into an actual recall election?

Enter U.S. Representative Darrell Issa. The multimillionaire car alarm magnate, former U.S. Senate candidate, and current House member was widely known to have his own gubernatorial aspirations. On May 8, he donated $100,000 to the recall petition drive. By the end of that month, he pumped another $500,000 into the campaign. By June 10, his contributions topped $1 million. By early July, Issa had contributed $1.7 million. With that kind of funding, petition gatherers blanketed the state. Whether one shopped at Albertsons, Longs, or Costco or attended the state’s numerous fairs and festivals, it was difficult to avoid their card tables, clipboards, and anti-Davis diatribes. Signatures poured into recall headquarters at astounding rates. By July 24, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley confirmed that recall proponents had successfully collected 1.3 million signatures, well beyond the minimum needed and well before the Sept. 2 deadline.

Shelley’s responsibility was to certify the signatures. It was Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante’s responsibility to set an election date and determine whether replacement candidates would appear on the same ballot. Pro-recall strategists submitted their signatures much earlier than necessary as part of their recall strategy. Had they delayed submittal until Sept. 2, it would have been possible to delay the election until the March 4, 2004, presidential primary. That would have effectively increased voter turnout and indirectly helped Davis’ bid to survive the recall. While Bustamante had some discretion in the matter, it was little. The California Constitution requires a recall election to be held between 60 and 80 days from certifying the signatures. As a practical matter, Bustamante could not realistically put off the election, given the mounting pressures to hold the election as soon as possible. As one Davis lawyer reluctantly put it, “The train has left the station.”

Ballot Politics

So the question “Shall Gray Davis be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?” would be on a statewide ballot. What about his replacements, should a recall be successful? The state constitution is silent on the matter other than to provide that the lieutenant governor serve if a governor is recalled. Nonetheless, it has been customary in previous recall elections for possible replacements to appear on the same ballot, if nothing else to save the costs of subsequent elections. Possible replacements had until Aug. 8 to file candidacy papers. The requirements to run were strikingly low: 65 valid signatures and $3,500 would qualify someone. Why $3,500? That figure was set in law at 2 percent of the governor’s salary (currently $175,000).

Early news coverage stressed the hundreds of Californians who expressed early interest in the race. That number reached well over 400 and effectively cemented the circus motif in the minds of many, especially non-Californians. Some would-be candidates dropped out before the filing deadline, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and recall jump-starter himself, Darrell Issa. By Aug. 8, 135 candidates had qualified to appear on the ballot. They included a former child actor, a comedian, a pornography publisher, an adult film actress, a sumo wrestler, and a host of lesser-known individuals with a mix of public and personal motives for running.

But as with most elections in our two-party system, voter and media attention quickly shifted to a relative handful of major candidates. Despite party efforts to reduce intraparty competition and pare down the number of viable candidates, major Republican candidates included movie actor and businessman Arnold Schwarzenegger, State Senator Tom McClintock, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. During the campaign itself, Ueberroth and Simon dropped out, but too late to remove their names from the ballot. The Democrats were more successful at limiting the field. At first, party activists and elected officials hoped to unify around an all or nothing “No on Recall” strategy, while avoiding the replacement issue. As poll numbers demonstrated consistent support for the recall, they cast about for a replacement candidate. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein declined the opportunity while vehemently criticizing the entire recall process. Lieutenant Governor and former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante agreed to fill that role with a dual “No on Recall/Yes on Bustamante” strategy.

Enter the Courts

On Aug. 7, a coalition of civil rights groups sought to delay the election in federal district court, claiming that the continued use of punch-card balloting machines in the state’s most populous counties would violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The lawsuit itself reminded many observers of the Florida balloting controversy in 2000 that involved punch-card machines, faulty ballots, dimpled chads, and a decisive recount-ending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. To avoid its own balloting fiasco, California officials had agreed to replace the punch-card machines with touch-screen or other electronic voting systems but no sooner than the March 2004 presidential primary election.

A district court judge ruled against the plaintiffs, who, in turn, appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Sept. 15, a three-judge panel of the court sided with the plaintiffs, thereby halting the election, but stayed its decision in order for the full 9th Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. On Sept. 23, an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed the three-judge panel and reinstated the Oct. 7 election. The court determined that, despite the potential inequities of punch-card ballots, delaying the election would create substantial hardships on the state, election officials, candidates, and voters, thousands of whom had already voted via absentee ballots. “In short, the status quo that existed at the time the election was set aside cannot be restored because this election has already begun.”

The Truncated Campaign

The 77-day recall campaign itself was unique. Early polls indicated that Californians were divided on the recall itself. As far as replacement candidates go, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante was favored by 30 percent of respondents, Arnold Schwarzenegger by 25 percent, and State Senator Tom McClintock by 13-18 percent. At this point, it was entirely possible for Davis, even while losing, to earn more votes than his replacement (who would need a simple plurality of votes cast).

The entrance of candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially defined the campaign. Did he have the stuff to govern? Would he divide moderate and conservative Republicans? Would he debate his recall opponents? If so, would he measure up? Would he accept special-interest campaign contributions? Would he discuss issues in more detail? Would he frankly answer charges of sexual harassment? The actual campaign to recall Davis — and Davis’ campaign in his own defense — took a back seat to who might replace him. And the epicenter of the replacement campaign was Schwarzenegger. His remarkably successful strategy was to avoid the traditional press, capitalize on the entertainment media, and rely on vague, sound-bite-sized policy and leadership statements. While the mainstream news media focused on his lack of policy substance, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, conservative talk show hosts, and entertainment news programs provided the soft, gushy coverage his campaign advisers had planned on all along. The only debate in which he agreed to participate provided questions in advance. During that debate, Schwarzenegger did indeed rely on sound bites, but competing candidates created other doubts in voters’ minds. To the extent they themselves provided vague, evasive answers or bickered with each other, Schwarzenegger appeared a more plausible choice. To some, he finally became credible.

The final polls before Election Day revealed trends that would be confirmed the following week. A majority of respondents favored recall and a plurality of respondents favored Schwarzenegger to replace him.

The Results

In the end, 54.6 percent of voters favored recalling Davis and 48.5 percent chose Schwarzenegger to replace him. Bustamante trailed with only 31.8 percent and Tom McClintock with only 13.3 percent. The breadth of Davis’ loss and Schwarzenegger’s win was stunning. Exit polls suggest voters of all ages supported the recall; about a quarter of Democratic voters supported it as did independents (53 percent), men (59 percent), women (51 percent), Hispanics (46 percent), union members (45 percent), pro-choice respondents (40 percent). Geographically, Los Angeles County was an island amid pro-recall regions; yet, even there 47 percent of voters supported the recall. The Bay Area continued its distinction of being the most liberal part of the state. Only 33 percent favored recall while 67 percent opposed it.

Schwarzenegger’s win was equally stunning in the breadth of voters he attracted. Consider these selective statistics from exit polls. Despite the candidacy of Cruz Bustamante, 31 percent of Latinos voted for Schwarzenegger. Seventy-two percent of all voters were white, and 53 percent of them voted for Schwarzenegger. Given those eleventh-hour allegations of sexual improprieties by Schwarzenegger revealed in the Los Angeles Times, how did women vote? About 44 percent voted for him, including 49 percent of married women! (Only 37 percent of single women voted for him). Schwarzenegger also won support from non-Catholic Christians (58 percent) and first-time voters (50 percent).

Lessons of the Recall

While time will eventually provide the necessary distance to properly evaluate this election, a few preliminary observations are in order. First, unprecedented elections create numerous opportunities for neophytes. California’s first-ever gubernatorial recall election was an abbreviated special election, primary election and general election rolled into one. The shortened timeframe prevented traditional candidates from making mistakes and recovering from them. This also allowed the victor, a nontypical candidate, to execute his alternative strategy without fear of stumbling seriously. Second, when voters are angry at incumbents, experience in public office is not a campaign asset. In this Davis, Bustamante, and McClintock shared the same fate. To use McClintock’s words, all three knew “every inch” of state government. This creates opportunities for those with no experience to us the lack of it as a campaign asset. Third, now that the venting is over, the true challenge of this recall experiment will be in how Governor Schwarzenegger governs. Democrats, albeit shocked ones, still control the legislature; a structural budget deficit remains to bedevil the new governor in 2004; interest groups continue in powerful supporting roles in the capital; and a backlog of policy challenges persist, ones that were never adequately addressed in the campaign.

In conclusion, one tiny bit of exit poll data deserves mention. When asked, “What was the most important reason you came out to vote today?” 85 percent of Schwarzenegger voters said it was to vote to recall Gray Davis; only 8 percent said it was to vote for their candidate.  In the euphoria of an election triumph, it is tempting for electoral winners to claim mandates well beyond their margins of victory. As a practical matter, these efforts may also be necessary to provide the legitimacy needed for governing, especially where the limits on gubernatorial power are pronounced. While a Hollywood celebrity energized the recall campaign and sucked the air out of other replacement campaigns, his very celebrity clouded many of the substantive policy concerns shared by citizens, voters, and policy makers alike. This election may have been more about firing an unpopular governor than about setting a new course for the Golden State.

Back to Top

Comments are closed.

Westmont Magazine Archives

Magazine Archives

+ browse all past issues
+ contains 1995 - current

Browse the Archives

Westmont Magazine App

Magazine App

+ exclusive content
+ alumni class notes
+ in-app bookmarking

Download the App