Capitol Building Inside Politics -- Your guide to National and State Politics Darrell West Darrell West


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Arnold Schwarzenegger's Electoral Prospects (posted August 7, 2003)

Don't underestimate Arnold Schwarzenegger's electoral prospects. Although many see him as a vacuous Hollywood celebrity with no substance behind him, voters have demonstrated a penchant in California and elsewhere for "white knight" outsiders promising to clean the house of establishment politicians.

With voters being very cynical about career politicians and when things are screwed up (70 percent of Californians say the state is headed in the wrong direction), outsider candidates do very well. By appealing to disaffected voters and those from outside the mainstream, such as new voters and political independents, these kinds of candidates can win.

Celebrities such as Schwarzenegger bring several strengths to the electoral process. They are well-known, well-liked, trusted, have the ability to raise money quickly, and have no trouble attracting media attention (especially important in a crowded field). Of course, Schwarzenegger will find the political press much tougher than the Hollywood reporters who suck up to celebrities. The mainstream press will probe Schwarzenegger's past for any skeletons. However, Bill Clinton has lowered the bar so far for politicians that things people found shocking a decade ago will no longer be so damaging.

What Schwarzenegger has to do is pass voters' credibility test. He doesn't have to be a policy wonk. Indeed, voters generally don't go for the smartest candidate in the field. But he does need to demonstrate enough substantive knowledge that voters feel comfortable trusting the future of the state to him.

He clearly is articulate and already has demonstrated extraordinary facility in relating to people and dealing with the press. These are the kinds of traits that earned Reagan the moniker as a "Great Communicator".

Don't be surprised if Schwarzenegger surprises the experts and becomes the next governor of California. After all, this is the state that gave us George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, and Sonny Bono!


Darrell West is the John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy And Political Science at Brown University and the author of 11 books, including Celebrity Politics and Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power. He can be reached at

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