Schwarzenegger, Ventura Likenesses Only Skin-Deep
The last time a celebrity muscleman became a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was there for the show, wearing a dark suit and a smile in the Capitol rotunda here as pal Jesse Ventura took the oath of office and let out a bellowing “Hoo-yaa!”
Following one hurly-burly term, Ventura, a onetime pro wrestler with a penchant for pink feather boas, left politics last year and is returning home, to show business. Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder-turned-movie star, is seeking a governorship of his own.
Overall, the drive to recall California Gov. Gray Davis and the wild race to replace him bear little resemblance to the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, but there are some similarities, both between the races and between Ventura and Schwarzenegger.
“We’re dealing with GI Joe politicians here,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “They are both strong-willed, strong-muscled guys who promise to knock heads.”
Even where easy comparisons vanish, however, lessons lurk -- scraps of postmodern populist wisdom from Ventura’s 1998 Reform Party campaign and Minnesota political adventures that Schwarzenegger and many of the other 135 California candidates might do well to study.
Perhaps the most important difference between the races lies in how the two states regulate their balloting. Minnesotans, unlike Californians, can register to vote on election day -- a provision that helped put Ventura in the governor’s mansion.
Early in Ventura’s race, polls showed that just over 50% of eligible voters were likely to show up and vote on Nov. 3, 1998. Ventura’s camp knew that a low turnout would favor the traditional party candidates, Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Democratic state Atty. Gen. Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III. So the Ventura campaign spent a substantial part of its time urging people to show up to the polls.
Their efforts helped drive turnout up to 61%. A full 16% of Minnesotans who cast ballots were same-day registrants, and a whopping 71% of those voted for Ventura -- giving him 37% of the vote, and the victory, 2 points over Coleman, 9 over Humphrey.
The majority of the same-day voters were young men -- Ventura’s strongest base then, Schwarzenegger’s now.
Besides the fact that Minnesota’s 1998 gubernatorial race ran on a traditional timeline and California’s is compressed into two months and premised on recall, another key difference is that Ventura began his run from the bottom of the candidate heap while Schwarzenegger has started from the top.
With a recent poll showing 22% of likely voters going for Schwarzenegger, 25% favoring Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and no other candidates even in double digits, observers note that the hero of the “Terminator” movies has almost nowhere to go but down. Ventura’s long, slow climb helped convince voters that he should be taken seriously.
Ventura, who is now at work on a talk show with MSNBC, began his race more than a year before election day.
In October 1997, he sat down with a handful of advisors at the Famous Dave’s restaurant in Maple Grove, Minn. The advisors, mostly onetime Ross Perot operatives, presented him with a handful of mileposts they said he must meet to have a chance. Among them: Attend every candidate gathering and then every debate, and do well in those debates.
“We sent him everywhere, to every forum, to get him trained,” said Ventura’s then-campaign manager, Dean Barkley, who is now running independent Arianna Huffington’s California campaign. “It paid off.”
By the summer of 1998, Ventura had become a phenomenon, with fans and autograph seekers following him everywhere he went. Admirers are one thing, however, strong campaign backers another, and he was still polling at about 10%, well behind Humphrey, who was leading, and Coleman.
With his anti-establishment message honed at county fairs, small-town parades and Elks Lodge speeches, though, Ventura sparkled at two televised debates that September. His poll numbers skyrocketed to 24% -- striking range, according to Barkley’s plan.
Although Schwarzenegger has occasionally lent his Austrian-accented voice to Republican causes, he has never held office or been forced to study the esoterica of public policy. Critics have griped that he hasn’t unfurled a detailed plan for solving California’s budget shortfall, which climbed to $38 billion before lawmakers agreed last month on a new spending plan.
Behind Ventura’s carefully crafted outsider image was his perhaps underappreciated experience as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., the state’s seventh-largest city. More important still was his pre-campaign experience as a local talk-radio host.
With Minnesota at the forefront of the then-strong third party movement in politics, Ventura the radio host became well-versed on arcane issues ranging from tax law to public transportation, and by the time he entered the race had developed well-defined Libertarian-style answers to almost any policy question -- knowledge that impressed even the wary.
“Jesse had some real experience, unlike Schwarzenegger,” said USC political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “He didn’t walk right off the movie screen and into the governor’s office.”
With a tiny campaign treasure chest, the Ventura camp spent virtually all its remaining funds on two television ads in the final weeks of the campaign -- both of which proved inspired in addressing key problems the campaign faced.
The first, featuring two young boys playing with action figures -- one of a stuffy politician, the other of Ventura in suit and tie -- managed to reinforce Ventura’s position as an outsider and at the same time showed he could poke fun at himself. “You can make Jesse battle special-interest groups,” said the Saturday-morning-style voice-over. Then the youngster holding the Jesse doll feigned Ventura’s gravelly voice in his own boyish one: “I don’t want your stupid money.”
The second ad was designed for women, who polls showed did not respond well to the man known in the wrestling ring as “The Body.” With operatic background music, the ad featured Ventura posed as Rodin’s “The Thinker” and a delicate voice-over that mentions, among other things, that he was a “husband of 23 years, father of two....”
His approval rating with women rose immediately.
Schwarzenegger, observers note, must not only appeal to a much more diverse group of voters than Ventura but also has a fraction of the time to do it, and under much different circumstances.
Also casting himself as above the influence of special interests and traditional politics, Schwarzenegger has nevertheless surrounded himself with longtime Republicans, including California ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, as well as Democrats, including Warren Buffett, the second-wealthiest person in the world after Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Another important difference in the contests is the fact that California is at least $8 billion in the red for next year, whereas Minnesota was so flush with money in the late 1990s that, once elected, Ventura began sending out rebate checks.
“When Ventura ran we were in nightclub mode,” Jacobs said. “When you’re faced with historic budget deficits, a shrinking economy and the threat of terror from abroad, that’s a very different environment.”
Although comparisons between the two bench-pressing friends are fun, political observers agree, none advise that Schwarzenegger follow Ventura’s playbook too closely.
Many, however, suggest that all political neophytes seeking the California governorship learn a bit about Ventura’s tenure in the executive mansion.
The gruff-but-honest candidate seemed to morph into a thin-skinned governor with a fondness for cheap shots, lashing out at so many so frequently that Minnesotans found themselves in the unexpected position of defending statehouse reporters, whom Ventura dubbed “jackals” and publicly mocked.
He called organized religion “a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people,” complained that his wife, Terry, wasn’t paid for being first lady, and spent considerable time writing and pitching books and moonlighting as a football commentator
Most important, the outsider automatically became an insider once elected, but he seemed incapable of getting along with his new neighbors. Among the milder pejoratives he employed for Democratic and Republican state legislators alike was “cowards.” Eventually, those Democrats and Republicans decided they liked each other more than they liked Ventura, and teamed up to quash nearly every initiative he proposed.
After just one term, Ventura decided he’d had enough. When he announced last year he would not seek reelection, his approval rating was at just 43% -- almost double that of Davis, but a far cry from “Hoo-yaa!”