There is more to California’s recall election than meets the eye. Personally, I was deeply perturbed by the result. Yes, I was dismayed that the citizens of California chose a politically inexperienced novice to be the governor of the largest state in the union and CEO of the fifth largest economy in the world, but the result was more unsettling for a different reason. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election to the highest office of the largest state has repercussions that far exceed the state’s borders. Could a celebrity Republican governor in California mean defeat for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004? Given Schwarzenegger’s resounding victory, I worry that the answer could be yes.
It’s no secret that any Democrat requires California’s 55 electoral votes to become president of the United States. While Republicans are able to win the presidency without the support of California by relying on a coalition of the small Central and Western states coupled with the South, Democrats see California as a must-win. Before Schwarzenegger’s election, Democrats had little to worry about in terms of a 2004 victory in California.
Once a Republican stronghold that consistently sided with Republican candidates with only one exception in all the presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, California is now an incredibly solid state for the Democrats. Gore crushed President Bush in the Golden State during the 2000 election, soundly defeating him by over 1 million votes. Now, with a celebrity Republican governor, 2004 could be a different story. I actually do not think that Governor-elect Schwarzenegger has enough influence to sway Californian voters to grant a majority of their ballots to President Bush — whose policies are much more conservative than those of most Californians — but Arnold can make it a much closer race. But why am I worried if I do not think Schwarzenegger can grant President Bush a majority of Californian ballots in 2004? The answer lies in the mathematics of campaign finance.
Money will be a scarce resource in the 2004 presidential campaign for any Democratic challenger. In re-election campaigns, the incumbent usually has the advantage when it comes to campaign fund raising. Couple this fact with the knowledge that, in general, Republicans are known to raise tens of millions more than their Democratic counterparts, and it becomes apparent that particularly in 2004, Democrats will be strapped for funds. President Bush, who according to the latest figures has raised $63 million for his re-election campaign, will have a vastly greater amount of money at his disposal in 2004 than will his Democratic challenger.
Not only will Democrats start from behind, but the challenger will also have to endure a primary contested by 10 candidates. History illustrates what a blow to the coffers primaries can be. In 1996, despite the established Republican fund-raising machine, Sen. Bob Dole was virtually out of money from fending off Republican challengers before he even had the chance to face former President Clinton. Democrats seeking the nomination for 2004 face the same difficulty. But what does California’s recall have to do with any of this?
Suddenly, with the election of the charismatic Schwarzenegger and the strong chance that he will campaign for the President’s re-election, the Democratic challenger will be forced to utilize precious campaign funds to secure a once well-fortified stronghold. The Democratic candidate will be backed into spending money that could better be allotted to pivotal states such as Florida, New Hampshire and Ohio — where Gore lost by fewer than three percentage points in the election of 2000. These three states with their combined 51 electoral votes could very well decide the fate of President Bush in 2004, and Democrats will be unable to put up as much of a struggle in these states as they were once able when California was not in doubt.
Regardless of whether or not Schwarzenegger is able to grant the Republicans a majority of California’s ballots in 2004, his election places the Golden State back on the table. The Democratic candidate, already starting with less capital than the president and still having to spend millions to win the primary, will be unable to bombard pivotal states with campaign advertising as effectively because of his money being sapped by California. The recall on Oct. 7 decided the course California will pursue until the next gubernatorial battle in 2006, but can that same political farce affect who the next president of the United States will be? I’m afraid it might.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.