Arnold Effect Keeps GOP In Play

11/08/2006 09:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Arnold Effect was on awesome display November 7. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger smashed his hapless and ineffectual Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, and though he couldn't pull other Republicans into top state offices, he helped keep their races with well-heeled Democrats close. But more importantly for the Republicans, in light of the shellacking they took nationally, the tact he used to keep power offers the GOP a useful model to win back disaffected voters that deserted the party in droves.

The starting point for understanding the Arnold Effect and how it figures in any GOP rebound is a to shed a myth about California politics. The odds of a Republican governor winning handily in California aren't as great as they seem at first glance. The state has more times than not been a fierce battleground between Republicans and Democrats. In 1988, Bush Sr. trounced Democratic presidential challenger Michael Dukakis. Though Bill Clinton beat Bush Sr. in California in 1992, the number of votes Clinton got was only marginally higher than the number Dukakis got in his losing effort four years earlier. Independent reform candidate Ross Perot siphoned votes thousands of votes that almost certainly would have gone to Bush.

This cost Bush Sr. the state. In 2000, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore topped Bush by more than a million votes in the state. That enabled the Democrats to gloat that they beat Bush in the popular vote. But if Gore hadn't gotten California's electoral votes, Florida would have been a meaningless sideshow. Bush would have won the electoral vote in a landslide. The same was true in 2004. Without California's electoral votes, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would have had no chance to beat Bush. Even this is misleading, if the Bay Area and Central Los Angeles were snatched from California, Bush would have been close to Kerry in the popular vote.

The shifting tide in the state's population demographics, and recent voting trends are strong hints that Republicans could again turn California into a toss up state. San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern, and Ventura Counties are the fastest growing counties in the state. They have big, solid Republican majorities. Meanwhile, Democrat's big stronghold in the San Francisco Bay area has had significant drops in population. This is not to say that the Republicans are poised even with Arnold's broad coattails to move California from the blue to the red state column. Democrats are too numerous, control too many state and local offices, and have an iron lock on the legislature for that to happen in 2008.

Yet in states that are solidly in the red or blue column, governors with the opposite political color scheme play an enormous role in helping to raise funds and deliver votes on Election Day. Schwarzenegger aptly fits the bill on both counts. He is a virtual walking political ATM machine. The estimate is that he rakes in nearly a 100 grand a day. That has added up to a $113 million in campaign funds. That obliterates the state record. The GOP will bank on his hyper fundraising prowess in 2008 to help keep the party's coffers oiled. But it's his ability to draw the monster crowds and hopefully votes that the GOP hungrily eyes and desperately needs.

A parade of GOP hopefuls will troop to California in a holy pilgrimage to mug with him in photo-ops, hug shoulders with him in front of wildly cheering crowds, and of course do everything they can to arm twist him to endorse their candidacy and even hit the campaign trail with them.

Schwarzenegger's brand of centrist bi-partisanship, and minority outreach, however, is a model that the GOP has stubbornly resisted. Republican presidents from Nixon to Bush Jr. have bagged the White House, and in the past decade Congress too, by courting and revving up evangelicals, hard-core conservatives, and Southern and rural white voters. They have fired up passions on welfare and big government, abortion and gay rights. But that one-dimensional approach to winning elections won't be enough to win future elections. The ranks of the independent voters have swelled in recent years and many of them are not tightly corralled in an ideological camp. Their votes can spell victory or defeat in the key battleground states. Schwarzenegger potentially can mobilize many of these voters for the GOP.

In 2008, the GOP will still be saddled with a sour voter mood over an unpopular war, and long voter memories if not wariness about corruption and sex scandals. The Arnold Effect won't magically wipe away voter wariness of the GOP but it does prove that he's the one GOP politician that can still make a lot of political and voter friends.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political commentator.