I don’t think that Caitlyn Jenner will become governor of California. But I’ll admit that I didn’t think that Arnold Schwarzenegger would get elected either, nor Donald Trump for that matter. So my record on first-time celebrity candidates is not exactly stellar.
At this early stage, there’s no way of knowing whether first-time candidate Jenner will turn out to be Schwarzenegger or Trump or Ronald Reagan or Jesse Ventura or Angelyne. But as Jenner prepares for her role as the latest GOP contender in California’s increasingly unusual recall campaign, there may be some lessons from Schwarzenegger’s candidacy that will help us determine the decathlete-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician’s level of seriousness.
After Schwarzenegger chose Jay Leno’s Tonight Show’s couch as the platform from which he announced his candidacy back in 2003, it was widely assumed that his campaign would consist largely of muscle-flexing and movie one-liners. But Schwarzenegger went in the opposite direction: He soon began emphasizing his policy goals, which allowed him to be taken more seriously than a neophyte celebrity candidate might have otherwise be seen.
Shortly after his announcement, Schwarzenegger convened a series of issue-based meetings with policy leaders that highlighted his interest and attention to the more substantive aspects of governing. Large-scale rallies received a lot more publicity, but talking about jobs and taxes with the likes of Warren Buffett and George Schultz helped convince voters that the movie star understood the demands of the job.
Schwarzenegger went on to outline policy goals over the course of the campaign in a range of areas, from economic growth to environmental protection to campaign reform. It’s doubtful that he would have been elected without his larger-than-life persona and off-the-charts name recognition, but that tangible platform provided him with the credibility that allowed him to triumph.
It’s impossible to guess whether Jenner will follow that example, and so there’s no way of knowing how Jenner’s decision might impact the campaign or which side will benefit most. Her presence in the race will certainly increase media coverage and public interest for the recall, which is very good news for its supporters. But unless she takes the time to demonstrate a familiarity with the basics, Jenner’s involvement could also contribute to the circus atmosphere surrounding the election, which is exactly what Gavin Newsom and his advisors want.
The unique nature of Jenner’s candidacy also serves to underscore the sheer unpredictability of a recall election. Most public opinion polls show Newsom surviving the effort by a comfortable margin, but as California continues to navigate its way out of the pandemic, increasing case rates in neighboring states offer a reminder of how precarious those improvements — and Newsom’s standing — could be. The challenges of reopening the state’s public schools have already proven to be politically perilous, and ongoing challenges with drought, wildfires and homelessness all represent wild cards as well. Newsom has a strong advantage at this point, but his survival is by no means assured.
Newsom has a strong advantage at this point, but his survival is by no means assured.
That uncertainty makes Newsom’s efforts to prevent another Democratic candidate from entering the race even riskier — and potentially reckless. The peculiar nature of the recall means that Californians will vote on two questions on the ballot — first a simple yes-or-no on whether Newsom should remain in office, the second a list of potential replacements. If Newsom succeeds on the first question, support for Jenner and the other candidates will be irrelevant. But if Newsom does come up short, he will be forced to leave office and his successor will be chosen from the list of alternatives presented in question two. Right now, that means that the next governor would either be a Republican or a quasi-celebrity (or in Jenner’s case, both.)
Newsom’s allies strenuously argue that the presence of another Democrat on the ballot will rob the governor of the ability to argue the recall is nothing more than a partisan effort. “Beware the Evil Republicans” isn’t just a catchy bumper sticker: It’s a powerful message in this deep blue state. But if the recall does manage to pass, then Newsom will have left his party out in the cold and left his state to be run by a conservative governor who publicly supported Trump in last year’s election.
Newsom’s hubris represents a gamble of immense proportions. Running the risk of losing his office to another Democrat would be a considerable blow to his ego. But the possibility of being replaced by a Make-California-Great-Again Trump acolyte is something that a more circumspect governor might want to spend a bit more time trying to prevent.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.