Why California's 2021 recall isn't the same as the 2003 version

Caitlyn Jenner arrives at Christian Hofer / Getty Images in Vienna on June 1, 2018

OAKLAND – Caitlyn Jenner isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The reality TV star’s entry into the California governor’s race on Friday raises the specter of a celebrity, chaotic, and overcrowded recall election as Republicans step up efforts to get Democrat Gavin Newsom off the field.

But 2021 is not 2003 – the seminal year in which Schwarzenegger, who was best known at the time for his leading role in the film series “Terminator”, thrilled the leaders of the fifth largest two months later with an announcement of his recall offer on the “Tonight Show” World economy.

Here are five reasons why Jenner, the 71-year-old former Olympic gold medalist, may have another – and much more difficult – path ahead of her than to toss her hat into a potentially crowded ring:

1. California is much more democratic: The state has become bluer and bluer since 2003. Every nationally elected official is now a Democrat, along with more than two-thirds of the legislature and the vast majority of the Congress delegation. This has given Newsom a deep pool of recommendations as the party unites behind him.

Democrats also make up 46 percent of registered voters, up from just 24 percent of Republicans – a difference of nearly five million voters. That gap has widened significantly since Schwarzenegger’s last recall: Back then, the Democrats had a much smaller advantage of about 8 points, or about 1.3 million voters. All of this gives Newsom a boost.

2. Survey position: Recent polls show that the majority of voters approve of Newsom’s performance and do not want to oust it – a position he owes to the solid support of the independents and the overwhelming support of his own party. Newsom was elected in a resounding victory over Republican businessman John Cox in 2018 – the biggest landslide for a non-incumbent since 1930, and one in which Newsom even won formerly conservative strongholds like Orange County.

Governor Gray Davis entered office with shaky approval ratings after a nasty re-election campaign against Republican Bill Simon in 2002, played in the polls, and lost Democratic confidence on the eve of the recall. By September, nearly two-thirds of likely voters were in favor of calling Davis back. In contrast, only 40 percent recently said they would oust Newsom. That could change in the months between now and an anticipated recall election, but time seems to be on Newsom’s side. The governor stands ready to take advantage of an improving coronavirus situation, especially if he hits his goal of a full reopening on June 15.

3. Arnold appointment: Jenner may be known to fans of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the 1976 Olympic gold medalist, but her role in California politics is a blank slate. She has had little involvement with the Republican Party or electoral action, and has done so, and it is unclear how far her name identity extends across an increasingly diverse media landscape and in a state where not everyone is owned by her televised Calabasas clan was.

That is a far cry from Schwarzenegger, who entered the recall in 2003 not only with one of the most well-known names in show business, but also with a long-term resumption of political activity. Contributing to his credibility: He was married to Maria Shriver, a nationally known journalist, and a member of the American political royalty, the Kennedys.

As one of the world’s most popular entertainment characters in 2003, Schwarzenegger rode to his fame as the world’s biggest box office hit and as the former seven-time Mr. Olympia, an icon who revolutionized the world of bodybuilding.

He skillfully used both platforms for political experience and activism, and acted as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness for George H.W. Bush and then chaired the California Board of Governors for Physical Fitness and Exercise under Governor Pete Wilson. He also took charge of the Special Olympics, sponsored by his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, and became a leading proponent of after-school programs. In 2002 he successfully pushed for the adoption of Prop. 49, which provided funds for extracurricular activities – and laid the foundation for his career in state politics.

4. Impact on social media: Do you remember the days before social media? No? Neither do millions of Californians born in the 1990s and beyond. And none of today’s powerhouse platforms – Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube or Instagram – existed when Schwarzenegger appealed to California voters as a recall candidate in 2003.

But it is precisely these platforms that helped the Kardashian clan, including Jenner, gain fame in recent times – which led to their career and popularized millions of Americans on reality television.

GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said social media could now be a major factor and asset to Jenner as she pursues California’s top job. She has 3.5 million followers on Twitter and nearly 11 million on Instagram. That gives her a platform to step up her attacks on Newsom – turning them into fodder on cable TV and Saturday Night Live. In other words, she could turn the recall into a pop culture moment, especially if a parade of other social media celebrities decides to join her and jump in the ring.

5.Shadow of Trump: The 2003 recall came in the BT era – before Trump. Schwarzenegger did not have to deal with the effects or consequences of a historically unpopular GOP president in office when he took office. He became governor on the recall during the presidency of George W. Bush, who had reached some of its highest approval ratings after September 11th. Bush had a 51 percent approval rating of all adults in the state in September 2003 Public Policy Institute of California survey.

However, Jenner not only hugged Trump, but voted for him – a candidate who stepped down from office with his historic disapproval ratings in California. Now she has hired several top insiders from Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, including campaign manager Brad Parscale and White House communications insider Steve Cheung and Trump.

This move gives Newsom’s team an opportunity to do what Democrats and Gray Davis could never do – to credibly argue that her entry is an extension of a wildly unpopular Republican in California.

And even as a historic transgender candidate, Jenner will be forced to explain her association with an increasingly conservative GOP that has pushed dozens of legislative efforts in states like Arkansas to protect the rights and health care of transgender men and women – and especially of Transgender youth – push back.

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