Coming Soon: ‘Rise of the Arnold Democrats’

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California's congressional and legislative elections.

Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbed a grenade into the California political establishment last week when he surprisingly announced his candidacy for governor. When the debris clears, the state’s Democrats will have a new problem: the “Arnold Democrat.”

Another actor -- named Ronald Reagan -- erupted on the California political scene 37 years ago, and one of his legacies was the “Reagan Democrat.” These were blue-collar, New Deal Democrats who suddenly found themselves voting for a conservative Republican. Reagan Democrats transformed California politics, not only catapulting Reagan into the governorship twice but also helping elect him president twice.

Schwarzenegger’s largest effect may be to bring to the polls another new class of voters -- people who would ordinarily be expected to vote Democratic, if they voted at all. These voters, though also blue-collar, are probably younger than the Reagan Democrats; they are definitely alienated from politics. One reason that polling on Schwarzenegger’s candidacy has been difficult is that pollsters don’t know whom to ask. Schwarzenegger’s supporters may be “below-the-screen” voters, the same people who elected professional wrestler Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota.

Political scientists have noted a steady increase since 1990 in voters who decline to state a party affiliation, rising a point or so in every electoral cycle. But the more dramatic phenomenon is that 30% to 40% of first-time voters register as decline-to-state voters. Even among Latinos, the category has been surprisingly high, although one assumes they tend to vote Democratic. In 2002, many new Latino voters stayed home because they lacked enthusiasm for Gov. Gray Davis.


These are among the voters the Schwarzenegger candidacy might draw to the polls. The 20-year-old who’s seen every Schwarzenegger movie three times is more likely to come out just to vote for “Arnold” than the 60-year-old white male for whom he is mildly amusing but hardly credible as a governor.

So, the one thing that becomes reasonably clear as Schwarzenegger begins to transform himself into a candidate is the near-fatal impact he has on Davis’ chances for survival. Democratic Party polls over the last two weeks showed a hardening of the anti-Davis vote among likely recall voters. Add to that disaffected and hitherto uninterested new voters who would troop to the polls to vote Davis out and Schwarzenegger in and it is hard to see any scenario in which Davis remains governor.

Schwarzenegger is certainly not the automatic winner on the replacement ballot. A thousand twists and turns are before us between now and the recall election. But the Schwarzenegger phenomenon dooms Davis. The last thing he needed was an army of Arnold Democrats.

Between 1966 -- the year Reagan was elected governor -- and 1994, the California Democratic Party lost six races for governor because Reagan Democrats crossed over in the voting booth. Not until the Reagan Democrat passed into history in the late 1990s did the Democrats again reassert themselves in California politics.

The newly emerging Arnold Democrat is as socially liberal to libertarian as the Reagan Democrat was socially conservative. He or she may well be an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. But one thing seems certain: The Arnold Democrat poses every bit as much of a threat to the California Democratic Party as the Reagan Democrat did decades ago.