What Happened During the 2003 California Recall Election


  • On Tuesday, September 14, Californians will vote on whether or not to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
  • This is the second recall election for Governor in California’s history.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election in 2003 — but it was a vastly different state and time. 

On Tuesday, Californians will take to the polls almost twenty years after actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Governator,” won the last recall election to take place in the state.

In recent days, Schwarzenegger has said that “the atmosphere is exactly the same [as] when I ran” However, California’s political trajectory and compounding crises at the time paint a different picture.

According to The Washington Post, between 2000 and 2001, power costs in the state quadrupled as California dealt with an electricity shortage. Gov. Gray Davis implemented “rolling black-outs” to try to conserve energy.

And in 2002, early in Davis’ second term, he faced a statewide budget crisis and instituted a car tax after years of car fee deductions. In 2003, ten months after Davis won his election, voters took out their frustrations at the polls, largely blaming the governor for the crisis.

“Schwarzenegger showed that you could do it. Success tends to breed repetition,” Jim Newton, a lecturer of public policy and veteran journalist, told Insider. “The crisis is different too, whatever one thinks about Newsom, it’s impossible to blame him for COVID-19. The issue with the energy crisis was more a function of government.”

Schwarzenegger had the right charisma and political profile in California as he threw his hat in the ring, alongside 134 other candidates when a recall race was certified in October 2003.

The story of Schwarzenegger’s win over Davis also came down to a more heavily Republican electorate in California at the time and the fact that Davis was extremely unpopular with Democrats, Independents, and Republicans by 2003.

Exit polls from 2003 showed Davis’ approval rating at 26% with voters, with 73% against him.  

For Schwarzenegger, the opposite was true: Californians were excited about his entrance into the race, so much so that his approval rating was 79% among registered California voters, according to a 2003 Gallup poll

“It was a not as blue state, meaning it was a more conservative state in 2003, and you had somebody who was viewed as a real viable alternative,” said Jessica Levinson, clinical professor of law and director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute.

“He was civically engaged and he had the kind of stamp of approval from the Kennedy family, which I think made a lot of progressives comfortable because he was married at the time to Maria Shriver,” Levinson added to Insider. 

In the run-up to the election, Schwarzenegger benefitted from California’s more solidly red base but also spoke about political issues in a way that connected with enough voters across the political spectrum.

That included a radio interview with Sean Hannity where he supported abortion rights and pushed for strict gun control and took bolder environmental stances for the time.

California’s demographics — and the way they have since shifted — also played a part in Schwarzenegger’s win. Recent census data showed that California’s white population has shrunk to 34.7%, from 46.7% in 2003.

During Davis’ reelection in 2002, he won the state with a 5% advantage over his opponent, and during Newsom’s election in 2018, he bested his opponent with 24% more of the vote.

When the polls closed in December 2003, Schwarzenegger proved that he was not only more popular in polling, but he amassed more votes in total than Davis, as well as his opponents. 

Schwarzenegger landed 48.58% of the Californian vote, and Davis received 44.6%, just over 200,000 fewer votes than his challenger. Although Schwarzenegger entered the recall race, he defeated Davis via the popular vote.

Davis even had then-Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, also a Democrat, run against Schwarzenegger in the field of opponents, but he also lost.

“That at least satisfies the kind of common-sense view of what transpired that’s a democratic exercise. Here, there’s no chance,” Newton said.

Schwarzenegger would go on to win the 2006 Gubernatorial election in a landslide and serve as a Republican governor until 2011, providing a roadmap for any candidate seeking to run the perfect recall race.



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