The Triumph of Change

LOS ANGELES—Why did angry Californians fire their governor? Start with this: In 1998, when Gray Davis was first elected, only 20 percent of California voters said that their state's economy was in bad shape. When Davis won re-election last November—by a sharply diminished margin—most voters said that things were bad. That negative sentiment reached an overwhelming 83 percent in Tuesday's CNN exit poll.

Times are tough. And Californians saw Davis as a weak leader without vision or conviction. Worse, voters felt he had hidden the state's financial problems in order to win re-election. The governor's job-approval rating in the recall election's exit poll was a disastrous 26 percent.

Voters wanted change. That included union voters, who were supposed to be Davis's base. They abandoned the beleaguered governor, voting 51 percent to 49 percent to get rid of him.

The rule is: If you want change, vote for the outsider. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the outsider, running against a field of longtime political insiders.

No Republican presidential nominee has carried California since 1988. Every statewide elected official is a Democrat. How did Schwarzenegger, a Republican, break the Democratic lock on California? With "the M word"—not "movie star," but "moderate."

Schwarzenegger described himself as a political moderate. And, sure enough, on Election Day, self-described moderates went for Schwarzenegger over Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante by 50 percent to 31 percent.

Conservative Republicans usually alienate California voters on the abortion issue. That's one of the main reasons Davis defeated Republicans Dan Lungren in 1998 and Bill Simon Jr. in 2002. True to form, California voters described themselves on Tuesday as "pro-choice" rather than "pro-life" by better than 2-to-1. But among "pro-choice" voters, Schwarzenegger and Bustamante were virtually tied. Schwarzenegger had neutralized his party's persistent abortion problem in California.

Schwarzenegger carried moderates and independents, young and old, rich and poor. He ended up with nearly a third of the Latino vote, holding Bustamante to a bare majority (52 percent) in his own base constituency.

What about women? Did the charges of unwanted sexual advances turn women against the former Mr. Universe? No, the exit poll showed women favoring Schwarzenegger over Bustamante, 43 percent to 36 percent.

Voters who made up their minds more than a week before the election—that is, before the charges became public—voted for Schwarzenegger by a 12-point margin (46 percent to 34 percent) over Bustamante. The race was closer among voters who settled on a candidate in the final week. But Schwarzenegger carried them as well (39 percent to 31 percent).

Is Schwarzenegger's victory in California a good sign for President Bush's re-election prospects? Not necessarily. Schwarzenegger did not run as a partisan Republican. During the campaign he said, "It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you are young or old. [None of that] matters to me." As if to prove the point, his Kennedy in-laws were on full display at his victory celebration.

Schwarzenegger ran as the candidate of change. "It really comes down to this," he said in a television ad. "If you're happy with the way things are, keep your current leaders. If you want to change this state, then join me." Sound familiar? Ronald Reagan told voters at the end of his 1980 campaign against President Carter, "Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? ... If you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is the one you'd like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have."

Whenever the economy goes sour, voters look for a candidate who offers change. The candidate who can make the most convincing case for change is usually an outsider. In a presidential race, that means someone from outside Washington, such as Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

The fact that Schwarzenegger surrounded himself with experienced insiders from the Wilson administration didn't seem to tarnish his outsider appeal. The Terminator is nobody's puppet. He sounded totally believable when he promised, "I will go to Sacramento, and I will clean house."

Schwarzenegger won not on issues or ideology, but on personal qualities. He carried 56 percent of the voters who said personal qualities were more important than issues in deciding their vote. What personal qualities? Focus, determination, discipline—the same qualities that create a successful bodybuilder or enable a poor immigrant to make it big in America. Those are leadership qualities that voters found missing in Davis.

Schwarzenegger's election is a signal: Times are tough; voters want change; outsiders are in. That may be why two Washington outsiders in the Democratic presidential race are attracting the most interest. A former governor of Vermont and a retired general with no electoral experience.

Davis and Bush are in different parties, but what Davis was selling is what Bush will be selling next year—continuity. Schwarzenegger's message of change could be just as much a threat to Bush as it was to Davis.