The Enduring Impact: Schwarzenegger’s Recall Resonates In California Politics Today


It has been two decades since Arnold Schwarzenegger assumed the governorship of California, marking the end of Gray Davis’s term following a recall election. Beyond the media spectacle of 135 candidates and a whirlwind 60-day campaign, the recall’s significance extends far beyond its initial perception as a bizarre event.


Shaping American Politics

"Discover how the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis paved the way for transformative governance in California, shaping policies that continue to influence the state's trajectory."

In hindsight, the Davis recall stands as one of three seismic shifts in 21st-century American politics, alongside the elections of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016. It served as a preview for the growing volume, populism, and directness that would characterize future political landscapes.

Policy Shifts: A Lasting Impact

While populist controversies dominated headlines during Schwarzenegger’s campaign, the recall initiated substantial policy changes in three key areas that persist to this day.


1. Children’s Programs

Schwarzenegger’s commitment to increased spending on schools, children’s health, and after-school programs laid the groundwork for elevated per-pupil spending in California today, now more than double what it was two decades ago. Obamacare, strongly supported by Schwarzenegger, ensures health insurance eligibility for all California children, including undocumented immigrants.

2. Environment

Environmental promises made during the recall, including solar and alternative energy investments, building efficiency standards, and greenhouse gas reduction targets, were all fulfilled through executive orders and legislative compromises. Schwarzenegger’s post-governorship involvement furthered anti-carbon pollution policies on a global scale.


3. Power of the People in Democracy

The recall paved the way for changes in California’s electoral processes. Schwarzenegger successfully advocated for the elimination of partisan primary elections, adopting a “top two” system, and ending gerrymandering by establishing a bipartisan citizen commission for redistricting. This nonpartisan redistricting concept has since spread to other states.

Schwarzenegger’s Legacy

The enduring impact of these policy shifts is evident in their adoption by Schwarzenegger’s successors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, as well as by California voters. Despite the controversies surrounding Schwarzenegger’s administration, these changes have stood the test of time.

Lessons for the Future

Schwarzenegger, despite his reluctance to dwell on the past, acknowledges the recall’s lesson that “anything is possible.” He emphasizes the need for urgent infrastructure development, paralleling President Biden’s efforts but urging even faster action.

As California reflects on the 20th anniversary of Schwarzenegger’s recall victory, it is essential to recognize its enduring impact on governance, policy priorities, and the belief in the potential for positive change. The recall, once seen as a mere media circus, has left an indelible mark on California’s political landscape.

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